Fake News and the Two Sides of the ‘Digital Caliphate’

Despite ground losses in Iraq’s Mosul and Syr­ia’s Raqqa, the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to have a presence that incites or inspires online.

The impact of ISIS has not been limited to politics and the tra­ditional media. ISIS has created fake stories. When it wanted to at­tract a stream of foreign recruits, it made jihad look like a video game. When it was reasonably secure and self-confident, it por­trayed the caliphate as a pleasant, positive place, the sort of place one would want to defect to, somewhere one could bring the children.

Less well known is that other actors – governments, media organisations and individuals – have created a steady stream of false stories about ISIS.

Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London, said: ‘The fake news surrounding ISIS is obviously always intended to discredit it. Having realised that over-the-top violence is not really going to dis­credit ISIS with its audience, the new tactic came in presenting [ISIS] as cowardly or ridiculous so it’s running away from female Kurdish fighters and being killed by wild boars’.

This soothes Western audienc­es. Similar tactics were meant to deter potential recruits from join­ing ISIS. A US State Department programme called ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ produced counter-ISIS propaganda but it did not seem to work and the programme was wound down.

Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said: ‘These fake stories are counter-effective because people who live under ISIS know they’re fake so it sends a message that there is a disinformation campaign against the group’.

He noted the trend has been prevalent for a long time. ‘A dec­ade ago, there were stories about how al-Qaeda in Iraq had a fatwa banning people from carrying cucumbers and tomatoes in the same bag because they symbolise sexuality and thus gender mix­ing’, Hassan said. ‘Since 2014, many such stories have been re­ported with little scrutiny. This is understandable – never check a good story – but also because ISIS is so bad anything isn’t beyond belief’.

David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How So­cial Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, said digital attempts to discredit ISIS, especially by emphasising its bru­tality, can frequently backfire.

ISIS stories tend to go viral. ‘The problem arises because this was always the purpose of ISIS’s highly sophisticated propaganda output and the media in effect be­came spear carriers for the group, ensuring its content went global’, Patrikarakos said.

‘ISIS is, as Abdel Bari Atwan has named it, the “digital cali­phate” – if it had emerged 15 years ago it would have taken the group 20 years to reach a quarter of the people it has’, Patrikarakos said.

Thus, any attempt to defeat ISIS using online media, by giving emphasis to its savagery, plant­ing fake news or by talking up ISIS casualty figures, could end up having the opposite effect.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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