Tuesday, 3 May 2016

UK, Ricu, and counter-propaganda against extremism

'We are in an information war and we are losing that war' (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2011).

A few initial thoughts on stories published today about the UK's covert counter-propaganda strategy. This is a story that is sure to continue grabbing headlines. I am sure this will not be my only post on this subject. 

Are we meant to be surprised by revelations published today that the UK government is involved in propaganda as part of its counter-radicalisation programme (see UK covert propaganda against lure of IS)? Given that violent extremism is promoted in the media environment, and that we face an urgent need to combat – at home and abroad - such groups as Islamic State in the information sphere, it would be more shocking if such a propaganda unit as the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu) did not exist. Counter-narratives to both the repellent forms of extremist propaganda and the more utopian themes projected by IS about life in the so-called Caliphate must be co-ordinated, consistent and use every platform available. 

Three issues present themselves: 

First, the distinction between propaganda and strategic communication is blurred and almost non-existent. We should acknowledge openly that we are in a propaganda war with IS and that counter-propaganda is necessary. In such a situation, labels are less important than the message and the objective. 

Second, Ricu’s case is not helped by flippant comments such as ‘All we’re trying to do is stop people becoming suicide bombers’. This alienates further the audience for such propaganda by conflating Islam and terrorism, and is therefore a potential own goal. If the objective of propaganda is to build communities to expose and manage extremism among themselves, such comments will not help. There is far more to counter-radicalisation than stopping people become suicide bombers, such as engaging with Muslim communities and making sure that they do not feel threatened, estranged or disaffected. The best propaganda works when audiences can see a government is committed to helping them overcome very real social and economic problems. 

This leads to the third issue, one that is highlighted in the Guardian’s reports on Ricu. The propagandist must weigh very carefully the advantages and disadvantages of acting covertly, especially the consequences for trusting the source if the audience feels deceived in any way. More openness and honesty about the necessity of propaganda would be welcome and would strengthen, rather than undermine, the information war against extremism.

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