Australian civil-military think tank Info Ops HQ recently published its 18 month (ongoing) investigation into Australian Foreign Fighters and Domestic Actors. This open-source intelligence investigation found that so-called Islamic State (or Daesh, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fil Iraq wa al-Sham) run a sophisticated peer-to-peer network, which is worlds apart from the perception that ‘social media’ alone radicalises young men and women.

Daesh are effective content marketers

Google ‘marketing to millennials’ and in a fraction of a second several pages appear. From demographic data to spending habits, geographical social network adoption maps and brand case studies, the blueprint for Daesh’s content marketing strategy or ‘Content War’ is no secret.
The only difference is that – instead of marketing beauty products, clothes and cars – Daesh applied this content marketing blueprint to propagate terror.

The propaganda images of Daesh target multiple audiences with precision.

The propaganda images of Daesh target multiple audiences with precision.

Creating an information vacuum in their wake – where a lack of alternate narratives increased their information domain stronghold – Daesh’s content payloads hit multiple audiences with the same levels of precision.

To the prospective jihadi, their content resonated with them as a fusion of cultural, linguistic, religious and often economic narratives provoked feelings that stirred a warrior's heart and sense of belonging to the global Umma (Arabic word meaning ‘community’, more specifically Muslim community).

To everyone else – and indeed the majority of the world’s Muslims – that same content payload can induce feelings of terror and fear. At a local level, the content war delivered a decisive effect, terrorising people enough to flee their homes or abandon their posts in the police or armed forces.

Concurrently, the global news media syndicated Daesh’s content. On high rotation with clickbait headlines that have steadily chipped away at global social resilience and cohesion, we have all become accustomed to a content war that we are unwilling participants in. The media, though, are not entirely to blame.

Retired United States Marine Lieutenant Colonel Cliff Gilmore suggests that, in fact, the media just serve us what we order: “In today’s communication environment, looking to one source for ‘both sides’ of an issue is arguably the very height of intellectual lethargy – but the problem isn’t journalists or journalism, the problem is media consumers.”

In using the very contemporary communication methods in the very places where we have been primed to consume our media fix, Daesh have both cultivated our appetite for their content war and dominated it almost exclusively, unopposed.

Changing hearts and minds

"Social media is about sociology and psychology more than technology" -- Brian Solis

Western military forces – in most cases – are in fact anti-social.

There is no real intention of engagement, no replies to comments or tweets. We busy ourselves measuring likes, comments, shares, retweets and reach but the parade of shallow vanity metrics being delivered in reports as a solid return on investment does little to measure or quantify the actual strategic effect applied. In many cases, the strategic effect is unclear or absent to begin with.

Insights from Brian Solis, a digital analyst, prominent blogger, author and speaker.

Insights from Brian Solis, a digital analyst, prominent blogger, author and speaker.

This is why we continually fail to achieve little more than entertaining our social media audiences and yet wonder why hearts and minds remain unchanged.

Importantly, there are exceptions to this analysis, with a handful of nations such as Canada and Germany grasping the totality of the contemporary information environment with a sophisticated understanding of building trust and resilience within their communities and ergo, influence.

Savvy social media operators know that building a trusted brand requires dynamic content of substance that does more than entertain and broadcast. To deliver an effect, social media must tug at the heartstrings, provoke critical thinking, educate and persuade the reader or viewer.

Brand Daesh

Brand awareness and recruitment aside, understanding how our adversaries create such strong, influential narratives has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with sociology, psychology and anthropology.

Taking a social science approach to breaking content payloads down into the sum of their parts, we garner a far deeper understanding of our adversaries that allows us to distill disparate and somewhat complex concepts into practical defences and solutions.

From fleets of Toyotas and jihadis tweeting photographs of their BMWs and gold plated AK-47s, to medical professionals walking through Daesh hospitals with newborn baby in their arms, flanked by rows of neonatal incubators… Daesh’s ability to normalise a very abnormal situation is just as important as their projection of terror.

The weaponisation of baby photos.

The weaponisation of baby photos.

Australian academic and counter-terrorism expert Levi West aptly observed in 2015 that “Daesh now produce more content geared to normalising the Caliphate, than content depicting violence.”

This shift represents a distinct strategic intent to project nation-state like legitimacy and governing stability. In attempting to achieve the legitimacy of a Caliphate, ‘Brand Daesh’ must concurrently be able to maintain the deceptions of normalcy created. In tactics akin to North Korea’s ‘city’ within the demilitarized zone Kijŏng-dong (aka ‘Propaganda City’), the projection of the illusion that ‘all is well here in the Caliphate’ is as much to convince those living within it as to persuade others to leave their homes abroad to join it.

Building a brand is one thing; maintaining the projection of illusory legitimacy another challenge entirely.

The Jihadi ‘nudge’

Daesh’s media strategy has long been lauded as one of the most horrific successes of modernity. But the truth is, ‘media’ isn’t a strategy and Daesh have demonstrated a sophisticated communications strategy that included media as a tactic. The distinction here is important because media implies a broadcast mentality, while communication we know is a dialogue or conversation.

Those conversations are critical to cultivating support and radicalising individuals to action. Very few lone actors commit acts of terror based solely on the consumption of online and social media content. In Australia, only 2% of jihadis were found to have self-radicalised in such a manner, compared with over 21% being a criminal first and jihadi second, and 69% having been radicalised via peer network or within family clusters.

The Daesh recruiters’ handbook details why conversations are critical to success:
● The recruiter can provide ‘evidence’ directing the potential recruit to online videos and other content;
● The recruiter can ‘course-correct’ a potential recruit should he or she stray from the choices presented before them;
● The recruiter can apply a hustle to action to take the recruit from moderate to extremist in a short space of time.

These trajectories are part of a sophisticated set of ‘nudges’ – or choice architecture frameworks – that step the potential recruit through each stage of radicalisation, while deluding them into thinking they are in control of their own destiny.

Incorporating culturally nuanced, linguistically heavy ‘choices’ that are already familiar to the Muslim recruit – such as the desire to go to Heaven – the nexus between ‘normal’ and ‘extreme’ diminishes.

Understanding the potency of information cascades

Social media is a potent information cascade.

Take a step away from the context of a content war for a moment. Consider the way your own perceptions and opinions are built and shaped by what you read on social media via your family and friends. A good review of an experience is a moment of shared delight, a bad experience shared is remembered long afterward.

Take this a step further and – in what are some of the most potent information cascades online – user-generated review sites like TripAdvisor and Zomato exert influence from stranger to stranger. Would you stay at a hotel or eat at a restaurant after reading the disparaging and often highly emotive negative online reviews?

Daesh’s strategy has been lauded as one of the most horrific successes of modernity and they have dominated the content war almost exclusively. ©

Daesh’s strategy has been lauded as one of the most horrific successes of modernity and they have dominated the content war almost exclusively. ©

Some 93% of global travelers say their booking decisions are impacted by online reviews (Trip Barometer), while 70% of global consumers say online consumer reviews are the second most trusted form of advertising (Edelman).

If we step back into the context of content warfare and radicalisation, our psychological responses are not going to differ to similarly marketed stimuli.

Whether receiving radical messaging through the more powerful influencer conduits – peer to peer network or family members – or from a stranger we have come to trust, our perceptions are shaped on the actions of others in our on and offline networks.

As Mosul falls, the threat of violent extremism abroad increases

Australian author and counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen wrote in 2015 that Daesh are extremely adaptable “moving from a conventional war of manoeuvre to dropping back into guerilla mode” in response to coalition airstrikes.

Knowing adaptability is part of their repertoire and, knowing they are under considerable military pressure in the physical area of operation, we should expect them to adapt once again – only this time on the online and social media battlefield.

Daesh’s move broadly to adopt encrypted chat platforms, such as Telegram, and actively to educate their followers in the art of anonymity online demonstrates a change in tactics. In military terms, they have taken C2 (command and control) and C4i (command, control, computer, communications and intelligence) off the grid.

Moving into dark social and the dark web was a logical response to law enforcement and intelligence counter terrorism activities. It provides Daesh with the ideal eco-system to continue to coordinate physical attacks far beyond the shifting sands of the Caliphate’s borders. It has an enormous online repository of content to draw upon and direct prospective recruits to proof points, deploys increasingly sophisticated bespoke apps for push communications and pull user data, and exploits the security encrypted communications provides.

What is yet to be seen is how NATO and its non-member partners will respond to this evolving threat as it moves from a coalition military action to individual nation-based law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities.

The demarcation between war and civil security is blurring. Where does the responsibility of the military end and the police forces begin in a battlespace that respects no borders and has no designated area of operation?

Now is the time for the collective expertise of our warfighting, peacekeeping and public safety fraternities to unite. The military have a great deal of expertise to share from consecutive urbanised conflicts. Police forces and intelligence agencies have valuable local knowledge and contacts.

In a content war – where perceptions and opinions are shaped as online worlds collide – we must unite or we will face the challenges of this threat alone.