Combatting The Islamic State’s Digital Dominance: Revitalizing U.S. Communication Strategy

From London to Ontario to Northern Virginia and beyond, young men and women have felt compelled to find belonging in a community ideologically grounded in opposition to the modern world—a community that utilizes violence as a solution to its grievances. Whether the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) ultimately proves to be a temporary phenomenon or not, IS’s success in engaging Western audiences with deliberate and dangerous propaganda will, without question, be modeled by future non-state (and state) adversaries.
For the United States and other Western governments, the root of the problem is that the potential for non-state actors to execute propaganda campaigns of this scale and effectiveness is new to geopolitics. The information front against terrorist organizations is now of vital strategic significance, and the U.S. government was initially caught unprepared. Foreign policy leaders will not be effective in the 21st century, however, if they do not understand how the nuanced use of media is fundamental to the formation of our foreign policy, and not just in explicating and justifying policies.
While the United States continues to emphasize state-level diplomacy and messaging to global publics, IS represents a case study in the strategic significance of a targeted, audience-centric, modern communication campaign. IS has succeeded not because their audience is predisposed to join, but rather because of their sophistication in shaping information environments which exploit their audience’s vulnerabilities.
Like all sophisticated modern media operations, IS knows how to use media technologies deftly to produce content that is relevant, localized, and targeted to segmented audiences. They are in tune with audience interests and media consumption patterns, and take an audience-first approach in content creation, distribution, and engagement. This is to say: they understand their audiences and local media environments better than we do, and leverage this as an input in their use of media and technology tools. It all works to create a powerful message that is intoxicating to people who are looking for a difference in their lives.
To adapt to this new environment, the United States must recognize that adversary information campaigns have a significant “first-mover” advantage, connecting with their audience first and, in doing so, delegitimizing the U.S. response before it can even launch. To counteract this, the United States must enhance its communication strategy with an understanding of our audience and how U.S. communication capabilities can engage them, improve their lives, and strengthen local media environments to nullify (in this case) IS’s formidable offensive-advantage in this information competition.
Terrorist organizations existed before digital media and will continue to exist. An effective U.S. communication strategy can, however, ensure that the strategic impact of information competitions favors the United States, not its adversaries.

Tags: Counternarratives, Counterterrorism, CVE, ISIS