With the near-defeat of ISIS’ ground presence, speculation is that the group will rely more on cyberspace to maintain its relevancy. This is unsurprising as ISIS has continuously demonstrated its proficiency on the Internet, particularly for propaganda and recruitment campaigns. The group achieved considerable success in influencing target audiences, and at one time, was credited with being able to disseminate approximately 90,000 messages a day. Many of the hacking incidents attributed to ISIS or its sympathizers focused on exploiting global news organizations, inserting pro-ISIS messages on websites and Twitter accounts. Perhaps more impressively, individuals associated with the extremist organization were suspected of hacking the United States Central Command’s Twitter account, posting propaganda videos and threatening messages.
ISIS propaganda machine remains a cornerstone of the group’s resilience and survivability, making any attempts to eliminate individual accounts akin to what some have called “whack-a-mole” futility. In 2017, ISIS supporters used more than 400 separate online platforms to pump out propaganda despite laudable efforts by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that actively search for and suspend suspected terrorist/extremist accounts. Such hinderances have encouraged the development of technologies to assist in this effort. The United Kingdom, for example, is leveraging software able to detect 94 percent of ISIS propaganda, scanning millions of video and audio files with a 99 percent accuracy rate.
While these efforts are very promising in reducing ISIS’ and other extremist groups’ presence in global social media platforms, they don’t address the root of the problem – the message itself. This has been an ongoing problem for governments and one that has continually challenged U.S. counter-messaging strategies. The lack of success by any government to mitigate the influence of ISIS propaganda has led some to conclude that perhaps governments’ tactics of trying to deny ISIS’ ability to use cyberspace may not be the key to success.
Indeed, these individuals have proven adept at using advanced technologies to such a degree that it may not be possible to truly mitigate their use of the Internet. ISIS members and associates have been reported to use the latest and greatest technologies including: anonymous-enabling communications, virtual private networks, encrypted e-mail services, and encrypted messengers, among others. Short of trying to institute an authoritarian grip on all available technologies (which does not guarantee success), there are too many alternatives that are available or being developed to make denying use of cyber-related devices a credible course of action for the long term.
That leaves having the right message that can compete with the one being spread by ISIS and other extremist groups. Thus far, nothing has proven effective in curbing recruitment or attracting lone-wolf actors to commit horrible acts of violence. In order to understand why propaganda works, it’s necessary to understand its intended audience, the psychological effects of propaganda on the intended target, and the socio-political effects it will have both on the target and the surrounding environment. Any counter-messaging strategy must take into account all of these considerations. More importantly, there can be no “one size fits all” messaging, as any content needs to be tailored to address the unique diverse backgrounds and cultures of ISIS’ members and followers. And that may be where previous efforts have fallen short.
There is an opportunity to investigate what causes people from different countries to respond to radical ideology, and to understand what in the message is attractive enough to unite different socio-cultural backgrounds under the banner of an extremist world view. We must not be satisfied with having put ISIS on the run. Instead, we should invest this time in interviewing the persons involved to get a better idea of why they committed to extremism in the hopes of preventing another group like ISIS to emerge.
This is a guest post written by Emilio Iasiello