As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined a different type of outbreak to be concerned about. As information on the virus deluges traditional and social media, the WHO warns that societies around the world are facing an “infodemic”—an “overabundance” of information that makes it difficult for people to identify truthful and trustworthy sources from false or misleading ones.
Moscow is keen to exploit the conflict in Syria in its information war against the West. Russian messaging on Syria is meant to help expel Americans from the country. It is also aimed at discrediting the liberal ideas that have long defined the West.
Online, the Islamic State is a technologically savvy, sophisticated, and nimble organization that learns from its mistakes and from the actions of the Western intelligence services and NGOs that have sought to counter it. It is no secret that past and current efforts to reach potential terrorists before they can become radicalized and committed to a path of jihad and terrorism have proved inadequate. To use the language of online marketers, countering ISIS’s online activities will require quality content disseminated on a massive scale, with careful product placement. Placing counter-messaging products into platforms and forums that extremists frequent will increase the chances of potential terrorist recruits coming into contact with narratives outside of ISIS’ control.
ISIS’s cyber efforts have paid off; the FBI told Congress in July 2016 that “the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago.”[i] The number of foreigners who have been inspired by the Islamic State’s online propaganda to travel to Syria and Iraq (or elsewhere) and participate in the fighting is unclear, but most estimates place the tally at more than 20,000. Others have been set on the path of radicalization by ISIS’s online propaganda and have become “lone wolf” attackers in the United States or in Europe.[ii] Demographically speaking, the people who ISIS is most interested in targeting for recruitment came of age in the twenty-first century as “digital natives”; they have lived their entire lives surrounded by ubiquitous online communications and have embraced it in technologically sophisticated ways.[iii] ISIS knows how to appeal to these potential jihadis. Reaching them with counter-messages will require a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach.
An important part of the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq was due at least in part to its creative use of social media tools to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. The group’s well-documented social media skills have attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the fight. As documented by the CTC weeks before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the caliphate in Mosul, the Islamic State propaganda machine also served a critical role in psychological operations during the group’s blitzkrieg advance into northwestern Iraq in June of 2014.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the group has issued an official ban on social media for all of its soldiers. In a document (see below) produced by the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee a few weeks ago and disseminated via Islamic State distribution channels more recently, the group’s order to all of its soldiers stated: “effective from the date of this notification, using social networking sites is entirely and completely forbidden. Whoever violates this exposes himself to questioning and accountability.” The order was published by the group in both Arabic and English.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At the beginning of the century, the spread of the internet, satellite television, and other media technologies was expected to break down old monopolies and political boundaries, making it nearly impossible for those in power to control what people read, watch, and hear.
Digital media have indeed expanded around the world at lightning speed in the years since, reaching populations that previously received news only from state broadcasters.
Nevertheless, press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, according to Freedom House’s latest annual report. Just 13 percent of the world’s population lives in countries whose media environments are ranked as fully “free.”
What the optimists failed to take into account was that forces interested in maintaining control over news and political discourse would not simply accept the inevitability of their own demise, but would fight back and look for new opportunities to increase their dominance.