The wheel is starting to come off the Islamic State propaganda machine

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Its slick messaging and sophisticated exploitation of latest techniques in mass communications have drawn comparison with the Nazi propaganda machine but there are signs that the Islamic State’s notorious media operation is starting to come apart.

Experts consulted by The Drum have observed a deterioration in the once high production values of IS videos, while its accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are being systematically closed down and its supporters on social media outed by anti-IS vigilantes and journalists.

With IS under intense pressure from coalition bombardment and fighting on various fronts in the past year, a dramatic fall-off in jihadis newly arriving in its “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria – down from 2000 a month to 200 – is thought to be impacting on its skill base in media production. The English language output of the IS propaganda department, the Al-Hayat Media Center, has notably reduced in recent months, analysts say.

Mainstream news media initiatives, including greater unity in refusing to broadcast IS material, and the death last year in a drone strike of its most notorious figure, Mohammed Emwazi (known as 'Jihadi John'), have also set the terror group’s publicity machine back on its heels.

On Tuesday, radical cleric Anjem Choudary was found guilty of inciting support for IS after a trial which considered 12.1 terabytes of data stored on 333 electronic devices. His accomplice, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, also found guilty at the trial, urged his Facebook followers to join IS as a “duty”.

Changing tactics

Yet, for all these setbacks, IS remains a potent media force. In recent months it has changed tactics to engage audiences in new territories and on lesser-known messaging platforms. Jonathan Russell, head of policy at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism organisation, said there had been an upsurge in Portuguese-language IS propaganda, designed to provoke Brazilian supporters into domestic terrorism during the Rio Olympics. IS’s “primary” social media outlet is now the Russia-based encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Such is the professionalism of IS output across numerous platforms from documentaries to mobile phone apps and print magazines that it has won begrudging admiration from within the news media. So much so that next week at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, its dubious talents will be acknowledged at an event titled: 'The Islamic State: Media Channel of the Year?'

It is recognition that IS, barbaric terrorist cult though it may be, is a significant media player. From its magazine Dabiq to films with blood-curdling titles such as 'Healing the Souls With the Slaughtering of the Spy (Part II)', its Nasheeds (audio clips) and its Mujatweets, IS deploys targeted messaging and high production values. The Edinburgh debate will ask "what lessons can [IS] teach broadcasters, brands and governments?"

It should also consider how news organisations can resist the lure of the terror group’s well-crafted and "packaged for broadcast" material from a region that is out of bounds to reporters.

Among the contributors to the Edinburgh debate – which is being produced by Vice – is Mina Al-Lami, a jihadist media expert based at BBC Monitoring, the BBC division which studies mass media worldwide. She says the IS propaganda machine has recently been severely disrupted by an “intensifying clampdown” on its activities by the big internet companies.

“IS and its supporters are engaged in a constant game of cat and mouse with online platforms, which remove their propaganda and suppress their accounts with varying degrees of efficiency and vigour,” she says. “While IS media operatives have become proficient in maintaining their online presence, the intensifying clampdown, which peaks with key events, has noticeably affected their online efforts, as dedicated supporters are spending more time trying to get back online at the expense of cheering IS.”

Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, based at King’s College London, believes that the IS propaganda department could have been adversely affected by the bombing raids. “A lot of their stuff has been much more poorly produced recently. There has been a sense that some of their media centres have been hit and that’s weakened their ability to do stuff – there has been a noticeable decline in quality between the earlier videos and the current ones,” he says. “Some of the propaganda has become more amateurish.”

Mainstream media blackout

Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News, believes that IS passed its “peak propaganda moment” about a year ago. She says mainstream media has become “much more conscious of the propaganda value of what they say and the way they say it”.

Coverage of IS hostage executions was minimised in stages, first to still pictures and then nothing at all. “We are in a position among the broadcasters in the UK where we don’t run anything anymore,” says Hilsum, who notes that IS films presented under duress by IS hostage and British photojournalist John Cantlie are being shunned. “It’s not that we have been sat on by the intelligence services, it’s that we have made a decision that this is propaganda and we should not be part of that. Belatedly we have caught up with their propaganda and that means that it doesn’t have the power that it did a year or two ago.”

She doubts that IS could create another media celebrity like Jihadi John. “If that happened again I don’t think we would run those pictures now.”

Channel 4 News employs an Arabic-speaking analyst of online video footage emerging from Syria. Some of that produced by Islamist militia Al-Nusra is filmed using cameras on drones and is “amazing combat footage”. She says broadcasters have to use great caution in using such material. “You end up with the news being a balance of different people’s propaganda. We try as hard as we can to get over that and I don’t think our coverage is misleading.”

Maybe Al-Nusra should be up for an award in Edinburgh?

While the most horrific IS videos have been most publicised, Maher emphasises that a huge amount of IS’s media output is deliberately turgid. It is far from the kind of creative work that might win awards at television festivals.

“What doesn’t get talked about enough is that a minority of IS propaganda – 8 per cent according to one study – is the ultra-violence that makes the front pages of newspapers. The vast majority is what I call North Korean-style propaganda. It’s stilted, rigor mortis pictures of everyday life: here’s a market place, a school, a factory, fresh produce.”

By taking reality TV to this extreme, IS seeks to promote the message that it is a functioning state, and ask its audience “why aren’t you part of it?” This material is directed at Arab-speaking viewers and, Maher says, the English-language output of IS “has slowed down”.

Propaganda of deed

Quilliam’s Jonathan Russell says the “overwhelming” majority of IS propaganda is produced in Arabic. He says the group has switched focus from being a producer of content to the more PR-driven “propaganda of deed”, where it benefits from coverage by news media associating it with terror attacks, even those it didn’t commit. “They know it will create such hysteria that the media cannot do anything but cover it for the subsequent 72 hours.”

Russell is co-ordinator of Extremely Together, an initiative set up by the global youth movement One Young World and the Kofi Annan Foundation to counter terrorist messages in language that young people understand. “There is a reason why groups like IS are able to communicate with millennials,” he says. “The key role for Extremely Together is to provide an alternative narrative that is as compelling and attractive as narratives put out by groups like IS, by speaking the same language, using the same platforms and occasionally being anti-establishment.”

In the wake of the Nice attacks, French media – led by Le Monde – refused to give profile to the perpetrator of the outrage. Russell supports this as a “brave stance” and says it should be part of a mix of strategies in combating IS propaganda. “There’s no value in seeing the Nice attacker topless on a beach and looking like a superhero. If we are trying to make [IS] change media strategy then putting them on the back foot like that is sensible.”

Maher is less convinced. “It might stop a French pensioner from knowing the name of an attacker but it doesn’t stop the 22-year-old from the banlieues who is interested in this stuff.” He also warns that media blackouts are invariably viewed with suspicion by young audiences.

Maher says Telegram – set up by the founders of VK, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook – has become “the primary place where they are at now – you don’t see them so much on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook”. He said there were “entire communities of anti-IS hunters” on social media sites who report suspected accounts.

Alongside Mina Al-Lami on the Edinburgh panel is Arif Haq, senior strategist at brand consultancy Contagious Insider, who has examined IS’s marketing techniques. “They have learned the core tenets of branding and advertising,” he says. “They choose their words on Twitter as carefully as any brand would do – each word has huge emotional impact.”

Haq is another admirer of the Le Monde blackout position, saying that the willingness of a commercial media operation to turn away from an established model of attracting audiences “shows the terrorists that we are not as predictable as they think we are, because at the moment we are very predictable”.

While most news operations exist to inform and entertain, with the aim of attracting advertising revenues, subscriptions and spontaneous payments, the IS media machine deals in a different currency, says Haq. “Their primary goal is legitimacy,” he says. “They see themselves as a legitimate state and they say ‘We don’t hide in caves, we have the traditional arms of the state’. That means broadcast news, glossy publications and an ever-present digital presence. Everything they do is intended to make you think they are not a transient and fly-by-night group.”

It explains why IS’s staple output is turgid realism shots of market produce and factories, occasionally interspersed with something more disturbing and horrific. Designed to give an impression of authenticity, this “state” propaganda is no closer to reality than Big Brother, and even less deserving of praise or awards from the broadcasting industry.

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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