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.