I am fascinated with propaganda – information meant, specifically, to encourage a particular way of thinking – and with social engineering, the social science regarding efforts to influence attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale – call it propaganda for good.
Propaganda is communications not just to create awareness, but to persuade, to change minds, and to create advocates. It’s communications for persuasion. These are communications activities undertaken by governments, media, corporations, nonprofits, public health advocates, politicians, religious leaders/associations, terrorist groups, and on and on, and they aren’t automatically bad activities: such messaging has inspired people to wear seat belts even before there were laws requiring such, to not drink and then drive, to engage in activities for sex that prevent HIV, to read to their children, to spay and neuter their pets, to a lessening of intolerance among different groups, and on and on.
I use these techniques myself, to a degree, in trying to get nonprofits and government agencies to embrace virtual volunteering and in recruiting for diversity and in creating welcoming environments for everyone at nonprofit organizations and within government initiatives. I’m not just trying to create awareness about those concepts and practices; I’m trying to create buy-in for them, to break down resistance to them, to get initiatives to embrace them. I’m evangelizing for those concepts.
My fascination with propaganda is why I track how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, and government initiatives, and how to prevent and address such. That subject was almost my Master’s Degree thesis; I decided the data I’d collected before I abandoned the idea of it being my thesis was too helpful not to publish, and I’ve continued to research this topic and update this resource. And I have attempted to apply my elementary understanding of social engineering in my work, most recently when I drafted Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF); it offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine, and provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.
My fascination with communications for persuasion, not just awareness, is also why I’m fascinated with the rhetoric in the USA about how Daesh – what most Americans, unfortunately, call ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State – uses social media to persuade. There are few details in the mainstream media and in politicians’ rhetoric on how this is really done – just comments like “He was radicalized by ISIS on Twitter,” which makes it sound like the app is somehow causing people to become terrorists. That’s why I was so happy to find this blog by J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and the author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam”. The blog, “How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it),” provides concrete information on how Daesh uses social media to recruit members – and it sounds a lot like the same techniques various cults have used to recruit members, before social media. The blog also provides concrete ways to counter the message, and how reporters can avoid robotically amplify the Daesh message.
Here’s the manual that Al Qaeda and now ISIS use to brainwash people online, which provides an outstanding summary of what it says – that echoes the aforementioned analysis.
December 28, 2015 addition: in an analysis paper released in early 2015, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, as part of the The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. It notes that, in its 2014 tracking of Twitter accounts that support ISIS, 1,575 of them tweeted more than 50 times per day on average, with 545 tweeting more than 150 times per day. “These prolific users—referred to in ISIS social media strategy documents as the mujtahidun (industrious ones)—form the highly engaged core of ISIS’s social media machine. These users may not tweet every day, but when they do, they tweet a lot of content in a very short amount of time. This activity, more than any other, drives the success of ISIS’s efforts to promulgate its message on social media. Short, prolonged bursts of activity cause hashtags to trend, resulting in third-party aggregation and insertion of tweeted content into search results. Prior to the start of Twitter’s aggressive account suspensions, highly organized activity among the mujtahidun—who at one point we may have numbered as many as 3,000, including bots—allowed ISIS to dominate certain hashtags and project its material outside of its own social network to harass and intimidate outsiders, as well as to attract potential recruits.”
And here’s another article I was pleased to find, Fighting ISIS online, talking about the tiny and not-so-effective effort to counter Daesh online, and which notes:
Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun (Arabic for “those who will be successful”), a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to fighting Islamic extremism, says people like her and (Paul) Dietrich who try such online interventions face daunting math. “The ones who are doing these engagements number only in the tens. That is not sufficient. Just looking at ISIS-supporting social-media accounts—those numbers are several orders of magnitude larger,” says Khan. “In terms of recruiting, ISIS is one of the loudest voices. Their message is sexy, and there is very little effective response out there. Most of the government response isn’t interactive. It’s a one-way broadcast, not a dialogue.”…
Social-media research has shown that messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising. Other bodies of research show that youth at risk of falling into many kinds of trouble, from drugs to gangs, often benefit from even small interventions by parents, mentors, or peers. But so far, major anti-ISIS programs don’t involve that kinds of outreach.
That emphasis is mine. I find these articles fascinating – and woefully ignored by governments and moderate Muslims in the fight online, and via traditional media, against Daesh.
This article from The Atlantic explores the strategy further: “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.”
I would love to see moderate, peace-focused Islamic social groups with a good understanding of online communications, like Muflehun, Quranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, receive grants to hire more staff, train other organizations, and create a MUCH larger, more robust movement on social media with their loving, pro-women, Islamic-based messages. Such tiny organizations are doing a brilliant job of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. But they are drowned out by Daesh. Governments also need to not do this.
December 11, 2015 addition: Mohamed Ahmed, once a typical middle-aged father and gas station manager, is one of many Muslim Minneapolians to do whatever he can to fight extremism in his state. Frustrated by the Islamic State’s stealthy social media campaigns, Mr. Ahmed decided to make a social media campaign of his own. Ahmed has used his own money to produce and develop his website, AverageMohamed.com. On his site, Ahmed creates cartoons and videos so average people can share “logical talking points countering falsehood propagated by extremists.” More about how Minnesota Muslims work to counter extremist propaganda.
The reality is that the Hulk, Smash! strategy will not work to fight terrorist ideology and the violent results of such. Nazism survived the bombing and defeat of Nazi Germany. Bombing cities is not what marginalized the Ku Klux Klan, and bombing cities does not stop people like (and that have supported the ideas of) Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph or Jim Jones. We know what’s work. Let’s fund it and do it.
Index of my own communications advice