It’s been said that in the court of law, it’s not the side who has the best facts, flashiest exhibits or even the best witnesses, but the side that tells the best story who will win. The same could be said of propaganda in the court of public opinion as well – just ask the folks at the US State Department’s Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications (CSCC), the world’s first government-sponsored enterprise not run by an Intelligence agency to counter online jihadist propaganda. Their unofficial motto, coined at the agency’s formation in 2010, is “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.” That motto was taken from the diary of American jihadist Omar Hammami, who until his death in 2013 was a leader in the Somali Islamist militant group, al-Shabab.
This Battle of the Narrative (and Counter-Narrative) can be a tricky tradecraft to master. It requires doses of several moving parts: psychology, sociology, political science, and an ability to influence and manipulate. This is the challenge the CSCC faces in producing a worthwhile counter-narrative to the salafist propaganda by deed. While the Islamic State can appeal to the deepest yearnings of some young men through cultural identity, religion, and self-actualization, the Islamic State also appeals to a sense of action – violent videos are often used to incite further action for the greater good of Islam. This propaganda by deed invokes a sense of duty and belonging, while also serving something bigger than themselves, and that can be a powerfully attractive message for someone who is looking for meaning in his life.
But instead of countering the overall message of the jihadism, the CSCC should take on each supposition ISIS promotes. The Islamic State, for instance, has produced extremely convoluted arguments about why it engages in crimes that are forbidden by Islamic law. There have been hundreds of religious scholars who have shown faults in the defense of these crimes. And it’s these arguments that need to get to the right audience: the potential recruits. Publicize the Islamic State’s hypocrisy when it comes to atrocities against “uncooperative” Sunni Muslims. While the Islamic State is very vocal and public about its atrocities against Shia and Yazdi’s and claims to protect “all” Sunni Muslims from sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, it has been very quiet about the recorded massacres against uncooperative Sunni tribes. Our counter-message needs to highlight all crimes committed against Sunni’s.
Lastly, showing the reality of what life is really like inside the Islamic State through secretly recorded video is one of the absolute best ways to counter their own narrative. Documentaries like this one, which shows how ISIS is systematically killing Yazdis, a religious minority group inside Iraq, shows the hypocrisy and brutality of the Islamic State. In Raqqa, a town in northern Iraq, activists (two of whom were recently caught and executed) risk their lives daily to document what life is like in the Islamic State stronghold.
And while the Islamic State can be seen as the “next generation” of terrorism that exploits technology for the purposes of propaganda and recruitment more so than its predecessors have, nation-states like Russia, China, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela are following in their “hereditary” authoritarian footsteps.
One example can be seen in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has skillfully integrated crony-capitalism into his authoritarian business plan to control the media. Quite simply, media companies that are sympathetic to the government (where have we heard that phrase before?) win favor from the State, while unsympathetic companies and organizations are subject to rigorous tax investigations. Other tactics used by regimes across the globe include: co-opting media owners, intimidation of journalists, mass firings, wiretapping and imprisonment.
China’s techniques are much more subtle – although they allow online criticism, they deny and stop any online attempt at organized, collective protest. In doing this, they have effectively undermined the self-organizing potential of society. The Chinese government has turned the internet into a useful tool; in one way it allows their citizens to blow off steam and, in another way, it allows the government a barometer to survey and monitor public opinion and temperament.
Russia is perhaps the craftiest practitioner of propaganda of all the nations. While relying heavily on the “fifth dimension”, or cyber methods, the FSB and GRU also go back to their cold-war roots, often using recruited assets to attack western organizations that seek to attack the credibility of the Kremlin’s narrative. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in Ukraine. Through the use of what has been termed “Special War”, information is weaponized and, through a process of dismissing the critic, distorting the facts, distracting from the main issue and dismaying the audience, a cycle of propaganda reproduces itself constantly.
The new authoritarian model of censorship seems to be based on the realization that total censorship cannot be achieved. The alternative is simple: create just enough disinformation to pollute the media space and at the same time confuse a large majority of the people to what is really going on. From the use of conspiracy-mongering Twitter-bot squadrons in Turkey and the so-called “50 Cent Party” in China, in which online scribes are paid 50 cents for every pro-regime comment they post, to the black hat wizardry of the Kremlin and it’s troll factories that include cyber-propaganda outposts that run 24/7 to post “pro-Russian and Putin” messages and slander critics both in Russia and abroad, authoritarian regimes are mastering the battle of the narrative.
The Patriot-Prepper’s ability to recognize and counter propaganda is a critical skill to have in the tool box. In the past decade, we’ve experienced the government increasing its scope of authority and control. Through domestic surveillance, control of the media, and overt judicial tyranny, America is getting one step closer to joining the neo-authoritarian regimes discussed in this article. Only through constant vigilance with a dedication to the development of the skills necessary to survive and thrive, can we hope to come out on top.
If we want to change people’s opinions and spur them to action, then we can’t always rely on facts. We must appeal to the values of our target audience and show how authoritarianism threatens them and their future.