ISIS and the Media War

The Brookings Institute has published “The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter.”  Key findings include:

  • At least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters
  • Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS.
  • ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user.

As a hostile regime, ISIS (also known as Islamic State or ISIL) has mastered contemporary media in a manner unequaled since Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda. During my graduate studies in 2010, I wrote in a discussion forum:

The Nazis made communication a key component of seizing and holding power. Censorship and propaganda worked together to suppress contrary communication while amplifying the Nazi agenda. The Nazis burned books and killed/incarcerated/chased off “undesirables” while Third Reich communicators such as Goebbels, Riefenstahl, and Speer immortalized the Nazi message in word, symbol, radio wave, film, stone and flesh (the Nuremberg rallies). Communication and power are intertwined. Hitler knew it from the time he scrawled Mein Kampf in the 1920s.

In a public relations course I taught in 2014 at Golden Gate University, I cited a New York Times article reporting ISIS’ “deft command of varied media,” echoing Nazi efforts. The terrorist movement blankets social media and produces Hollywood-quality videos promoting its ideologies and glorifying its atrocities including beheading and immolating captives. This user-generated content ensnares a huge global audience, multiplied by traditional media coverage of the missives.

In a 2004 article I wrote for AdWeek, I proposed a United States Department of Communications to unify and direct strategy and tactics that would foster “America’s perseverance in a wired, media-intensive world.” In the ensuing decade, social media have grown exponentially, giving our enemies vast opportunity to wage and win the media war. Per Richard A. Stengel, America’s under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, “the efforts to counter ISIS could have been better coordinated.”

The Obama administration plans its media counteroffensive through expansion of an office created in 2011, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Per The New York Times, critics claim the office has lacked support and funding. “We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content,” said Under Secretary Stengel as the media war with ISIS has intensified.

Social media propelled the 2011 Arab Spring which led to regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It is now an accelerant in ISIS’ quest to recruit supporters, seize territory, and cow opponents. Terrorists foment asymmetrical warfare, taking on much larger and more capable foes. Ironically, the asymmetry in today’s media war shows the terrorists as the superior combatant.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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