Much has been made of the Islamic State’s announcements by its media office, which is mostly aimed at the international community. Less analysis has been made of its regional output. That’s what Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation did in a recent report entitled “Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate.’” Winter focused upon one month’s worth of output by IS from July 17 to August 15, 2015 that came from both its provinces and its central media outlets. Here are some of his insights into the organization’s themes and how they might be countered. Winter can be followed on Twitter
1. Could you give a brief snapshot of what an average day’s worth of IS media releases looks like?
On an average day, Islamic State’s official propaganda offices from Nigeria to Afghanistan release 38.2 separate propaganda ‘events’ – photo essays, videos, audio and text bulletins, and so on. The thematic make-up of these 38 units varies widely, but there are some broad, consistent trends. First off, brutality is far from prominent. Indeed, often, it doesn’t come up at all. Far more important is the content that prioritises conveying the themes of victimhood, war and civilian life. On a daily basis, numerous visual reports emerge of dead or maimed children and decimated infrastructure in the ‘caliphate’, things that are instrumentalised in order to legitimise and justify Islamic State’s very existence. Photo essays are circulated like clockwork showing soldiers training, engaging in offensive and fighting a war of attrition warfare, firing off mortars at named but unseen adversaries. Most prominent by far, though, are depictions of civilian life – from hudud punishments, handicrafts and stonemasonry to zoos, chicken farms and road-building. The intention of this content is obvious: Islamic State’s ‘state’ is being sold as a true utopia, a viable, practicable alternative to the status quo.
2. In just 30 days you found 1,146 “units of propaganda” coming out of IS outlets. Was the group just trying to produce as much as it could or was there some goal behind that huge output?
Such high volume is not something that has arisen spontaneously. Islamic State’s media strategists have cultivated this situation with great care. By creating so much content, they are expanding the ‘evidence base’ with which their recruiters can recruit and creating as comprehensive an image of life in the ‘caliphate’ as possible. On top of that, they are satisfying demand – after all, Islamic State’s global media success is predicated upon the existence and persistent enthusiasm of its online disseminator community. These ‘propagandees’ are active consumers of Islamic State’s branding and require a constant flow of content to keep them obsessively interested. For the self-styled disseminator community, Islamic State’s ever-accelerating rate of production ensures the continuation of intrigue – every new report is a not just a piece of propaganda to consume and spread, it is a new way to digitally support Islamic State’s jihad.
3. Many people who talk about the Islamic State’s information output focus upon the violent videos it produces. In your study what was the rough breakdown between violent and military pieces and those about civilian and governance issues, and what did that say about the themes IS is pushing?
In ‘The Virtual Caliphate: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy’, a report I wrote back in July 2015, I identified six key themes of the Islamic State narrative – mercy, belonging, brutality, victimhood, war and utopia. When I came to the end of the data collection period in August 2015, I wanted to test the ‘Virtual Caliphate’ hypothesis, so I ran the 1146 items through this framework to weigh the empirically themes against each other. What I found marked a distinctive shift away from the norms of bygone days, just 0.45% of the units prioritised mercy, 0.89% dealt with belonging, and 2.13% with brutality. 6.84% of the dataset focused on the victimhood narrative, while 37.12% were military-themed and 52.57% depicted civilian life in the ‘caliphate’.
4. The violence you monitored coming from IS outlets you didn’t think was aimed at the international community or attracting new foreign recruits, but rather at people already living under IS control. What was the organization trying to tell that population?
Since Islamic State grabbed the attention of Western media last year, there has been a consistent sense in the mainstream discourse on the group that its members are all irrational and bloodthirsty madmen. ‘Jihadi John’s’ stream of beheadings, the high-definition immolation of Muadh al-Kasasbeh’s, the mass executions in Libya – all of these were instances of Islamic State’s Propaganda of the Deed, focused on provoking and outraging the international community. These days, the spectre of ultraviolence remains, however, since mid-April 2015, the target audience has become decidedly more regional, as the motivations behind Islamic State’s brutality have erred away from global provocation towards local deterrence. These days, those being killed are alleged dissenters and spies, people living in the ‘caliphate’ itself. Above all, their deaths are publicised as warnings to toe the ‘caliphate’ line.
5. Many radical groups of all persuasions like to portray themselves as being up against the wall, and facing insurmountable odds as the underdogs. What examples of victimization did you find in your study?
The victimhood narrative is an age-old friend of jihadist groups and Islamic State’s manipulation of it is nothing new. Whether they are documenting the aftermath of ‘Crusader’ (coalition) missiles, ‘Safavid’ (Iraqi) bombs, ‘Saluli’ (Saudi) rockets or ‘Nusayri’ (Assad regime) barrels, Islamic State’s propagandists spend an exorbitant amount of time selling the ‘caliphate’ as the one truly defiant vanguard standing up to the global status quo and bearing the brunt of the international conspiracy against Islam on behalf of Sunnis everywhere.
6. Did you learn any lessons about how western and Middle Eastern governments might be able to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda?
When considering how best to challenge Islamic State’s propaganda, we must keep in mind that it is not just being consumed online. It’s really important to recognise that all these efforts are not just for international audiences – propaganda is not just limited to attracting new recruits or scaring enemies. After all, it is as ubiquitous in Islamic State-held territories as it is online, played on repeat at media points across the ‘caliphate’, and handed out as newspapers (al-Naba’) and in electronic magazines (al-Maysara). In the almost total absence of other streams of information, the picture of life that the civilian population of the ‘caliphate’ is able to piece together is drawn directly from this carefully refined content. This only complicated the situation.
Whatever the case, predicating our response upon the myth of the panacea counter narrative, that one idea or concept that can singlehandedly undercut Islamic State’s brand, is a wrong-footed approach. Indeed, by limiting the effort to looking for Golden Fleece ‘counter’ narratives, we are structurally impairing ourselves from meaningful progress. What we need to focus on is generating a set of ‘alternative’ narratives, things that challenge Islamic State by their very existence, not by their pithy attempts to slander it. Of course, figuring out just what these alternatives are is a whole other issue, something for which there is no easy answer. Categorically, though, it is a trajectory we must embark upon.
Winter, Charlie, “Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate,’” Quilliam Foundation, October 2015
- “Fishing and ultraviolence,” BBC, 10/6/15