The so-called Islamic State (IS) is trying to harness two core archetypes of branding, the leadership and the challenger, according to media experts.
IS burst on to the world stage in June 2014 with brutal mass killings and the declaration of its so-called caliphate. Since its arrival, the terrorist group has embarked on what Vice calls the 'world's angriest ad campaign,' using social media to exploit the intense public and media interest in its actions, particularly through the shocking images and videos it shares on social media.
The group’s rise to notoriety through the media has been helped by its strong presence online, playing to the “hugely seductive factor” of a challenger brand with the “trusted element” of being a leadership brand, claimed Arif Haq, brand consultant at Contagious.
“They are saying we are the leadership brand, we are here to stay, we are a state. They are known as well for being a challenger brand: they are being Coke and Pepsi at the same time. There are not many brands in the world that are able to do that," Faq said on the Islamic State: Media Channel of the Year panel at the Edinburgh TV Festival, where he was joined by media experts from the BBC and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, who were also on the panel.
When IS was building its strength and power on the ground in 2012-2013, it was content to stay in the shadows, said Aris Roussinos, reporter at Vice News. As Western intervention began to take place and the Syrian regime began to focus on IS as a threat, the terrorist group made a concerted effort to attract a digital audience.
The digital push started on Facebook, which was originally “quite lax about that kind of content”, said Roussinos. That reach has grown considerably over the last two years, though it's more an "opportunist" jump on the latest technology rather than a strategic consideration of each platform, said Alex Krasodomski-Jones, researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media.
“The evolution has seen them move from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, and more recently to a platform called Telegram. It is less a strategic shift and more an opportunistic agnosticism. So long as their message is being put out there, that suits them,” Krasodomski-Jones said.
IS' media strategy is “to pore as much reach as they can on the top of the funnel”, Haq said, in in an attempt to guarantee the broadest reach. and yet the group is “not too concerned on consistency of message”, he continued, and would rather secure as much interest in its notional ideology as possible.
“Their [IS'] main thing is to decentralise their communications; give their local markets the freedom to talk to their audiences in culturally specific ways,” he added.
The rise of digital has created the ability for IS to “franchise out”. Previously, it was a closed group but since 2014 it has made a number of calls for IS sympathisers to carry out tasks in the West. All it takes for IS to be associated with an attack in the media is a pledge of allegiance from the perpetrator, which can be in the form of a voice recording, or even a tweet.
While it is not yet known how devolved this propaganda war, these ‘lone wolf’ attacks can happen “far outside any knowledge of any person central in the organisation”, Krasodomski-Jones explained.
Mina Al-Lami, Jihadist media expert at BBC Monitoring, said IS uses these attacks to give off this impression that “it has tentacles everywhere”, and appear much larger than its core organisation actually is.
“It has a vast network of dispersed supporters and semi-official media groups that can help it promote and widely disseminate its message. The group doesn’t discourage its supporters from doing that because it gives it the impression that it is wider and is spread everywhere. The same goes for lone wolf attacks,” she said.
The group’s perceived success in encouraging migration to “the State” and recruiting global supporters has swelled its profile as trust in mainstream media falls, Krasodomski-Jones suggested.
“People are turning to alternative news sources or they are consuming news on social media channels where everything is algorithmically determined to show you the most popular content,” he added.
Haq said IS appeals to the “ambiguities that young people have to cope with”. Where many younger people don’t have a job for life or an easy career path, he said “absolutism offers some kind of solace”.
Establishing a strong voice in the youth population is where government counter-terrorism campaigns struggle. Krasodomski-Jones argued that governments are “not the credible voices” when dealing with terrorist organisations. Al-Lami agreed with this view and added that “the US state department has no credibility among young Muslim kids”.
Roussinos said a government funded counter-narrative strategy is “completely pointless” and that US and UK attempts to launch anti-IS digital campaigns such as the State department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ Twitter feed, are “embarrassing” and “ineffective”. By comparison, he begrudgingly called IS “young millennial digital native”.
Instead, the Vice journalist believes IS' PR crusade could come undone by its n American technology, particularly social networks. The likes of Twitter have shown an acceptance of their role in combating extremism over the last 12 months, though some politicians want them to do more. Al-Lami said the efforts to date have disrupted the terrorist group's media operation, and as a consequence IS has “changed its message and diverted their attention to preparing supporters that they are losing more territory”.
There is a skills crisis here at a political level and a policing level, Krasodomski-Jones opined, where the speed at which new technology has emerged and been embraced has meant the laws that govern it and the people expected to enforce them “are playing catch up, and they will continue to play catch up”.
“One of the things that politics is particularly bad at is moving at pace and speed. The police are relying on laws in the Communications Act to punish terrorist communications online that are hopelessly out of date. This old and young division when it comes to technology is a really striking one when it comes to dealing with terrorist propaganda”, he concluded.