@ISIS Is #Winning

Why is a barbaric medieval caliphate so much better at social media than Washington?

Image by Ed Johnson/ForeignPolicy
Image by Ed Johnson/ForeignPolicy

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is running a brilliantly effective social media campaign. With the group rebranded as the Islamic State (IS), its grisly messaging gets attention and discourages resistance to its military operations, both where it is fighting and among countries that might be inclined to intervene against it. After it took Mosul, IS streamed video of its men executing dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers — which very likely helped encourage the choice of Iraqi security forces to quietly desert their posts. IS live-tweeted its military advance through Iraq, showcasing the bravery of its fighters and what little resistance Iraqi security forces offered. It threatened decapitations in London’s Trafalgar Square. And as the United States was busy playing its World Cup round-of-sixteen game, IS tweeted a picture of a decapitated head with the caption that it was the Islamic State’s ball.

The Islamic State is not making the same mistake that its al Qaeda predecessor did: choosing the "far enemy" instead of the "near enemy" of Middle Eastern governments. The radical Islamists now rampaging through Iraq are fighting on both fronts, taunting us for our indecision and unwillingness to fight them while gaining ground where conditions favor them in Syria and Iraq. They surely overestimate their strength should we choose to engage the battle, but their shrewd use of modern communications is helping prevent that from happening. The Islamist radical group’s ability to craft sensational messages that support the objectives of its military campaign is superb: The Islamists’ barbarity discourages enemies from being willing to fight them and reinforces the hesitance of Western publics to get involved in another Middle Eastern war. Sun Tzu would give them a standing ovation.

By contrast, the U.S. government’s efforts at hashtag diplomacy are pathetic. Just take first lady Michelle Obama’s maudlin-looking picture of her holding a handwritten sign reading "#BringBackOurGirls" — a public appeal for someone, anyone, to do something to effect the release of the Nigerian students kidnapped by Boko Haram. As if she didn’t sleep at night with the person who has the greatest ability of anyone in the world to free these captive girls. But once the picture fluttered out into the world, the first lady returned to other pursuits.

Offerings by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki have been particularly cringe-inducing, the worst being a smiling picture of her giving a thumbs-up with a sign reading, "#UnitedForUkraine," part of a tweet encouraging Russia to "live by the promise of hashtag." The effort was widely ridiculed, both by the Russian government and by Americans, and surely was dispiriting to the Ukrainians whom U.S. diplomacy is supposed to be supporting.

The Duffel Blog satirized the Obama administration’s ineffectualness with an article highlighting "7 Hashtags The White House Used To Solve Major World Problems." It concludes with a picture of Secretary of State John Kerry looking forlorn with the hashtag #BringBackOurForeignPolicy (which includes a funny, gratuitous slap at Foreign Policy‘s paywall).

That the American government is seemingly incapable of using modern communications to real advantage is embarrassing. How is it that a society that has Madison Avenue salesmanship, Hollywood celebrity self-promotion, blockbuster movie special effects, Silicon Valley tech innovation, and a permanent political campaign is so abysmal at the fine art of visual telegraphic summation in support of its objectives?

I think the answer is twofold. First, the form itself advantages offense. Second, U.S. efforts are not supporting a broader strategy.

Hashtag diplomacy as a medium favors both the quick hit and the use of ridicule. Sensational pictures and statements are what gets noticed. Status quo institutions, like the U.S. government, are at a disadvantage competing against the producers of spectacle. Even using the Islamic State’s depredations against them (such as showing evidence of the group’s violence against civilians) reinforces IS’s message not to mess with them. The benefits of law and order, the satisfaction of representative government, and the blessings of liberty make for boring footage by comparison — as any TV news outlet could attest.

I don’t have a Twitter account myself [Ed. — we’re working on that], but even I know that it’s an art form best suited to asymmetrical warfare. Just as insurgency and terrorist attacks are means by which the weak can dent the strong, social media is a means by which the powerless can dent the powerful. And nowhere is this more effective than in highlighting hypocrisy of public figures and government policies.

But messaging campaigns generally get traction when they reinforce an existing, even if unformed, belief. Take U.S. Men’s National Team goalie Tim Howard’s amazing performance in the World Cup loss to Belgium, which inspired #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave — a spoof on the many calamities he might have prevented (like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs). Likewise, some 22 years before, the viral picture of President George H.W. Bush looking incredulous at a checkout scanner reinforced the sense of his elitism, even if his White House spokesman later assured the assembled press that the president had indeed been to a grocery store before.

The Islamic State’s messaging reinforces the existing belief of the group’s murderous ruthlessness, but it is also linked to a broader strategy: keeping the United States from intervening. The group’s messaging reminds Americans of the complexity and violence of regional, state, and religious relationships in the Middle East and reinforces the sentiment of not wanting to get involved. That’s why it’s effective.

But Washington’s political messaging is a substitute for strategy, not a line of operations within one. The first lady appealing for attention to Boko Haram’s kidnappings actually helps Nigeria’s Islamist radicals, giving the group notoriety — while reinforcing America’s powerlessness to do anything about it. Moreover, it’s adding insult to injury for the suffering people who’ve been terrorized by Boko Haram, conveying spectacularly that we are only pretending to do something, not actually doing anything.

America’s diplomatic messaging is much better than the politicians’ adolescent solipsism. The State Department’s Think AgainTurn Away campaign responds with specific rebuttals of terrorist tweets. Think Again has identified the weaknesses of the Islamic State’s ideology — its indiscriminate slaughter of innocents — and patiently turns those back on IS’s supporters. It is the latest iteration of the State Department’s effort to win the war of ideas, and it’s a reasonably good one; but it’ll never be as interesting as the message it’s designed to counter. America’s argument is strong in the long run, but social media is optimized to the short term.

The U.S. government will never be good at social media campaigns unless it thinks about messaging as an integral part of a larger strategy. So first of all, we need a strategy. And then we need people who can clarify and condense its purposes and creatively take opportunities to reinforce them with social media. Those are not signature strengths of the American government. As a political culture, America seems incapable of strategic messaging. All the wistful longing of government officials for everyone to get on board their program is never going to succeed in a society as diverse and communicative as America’s. It’s just not who we are — so it’s a terrible basis on which to build a strategy.

Instead of trying to control the message, the government should stop struggling against who we are as a political culture and embrace it. The nature of soft power is that it is diffuse and difficult to direct. It will be hard to accept, but perhaps the best messenger for our message is not our government. Washington would be more successful in social media by removing itself from the center of it — shifting the focus to the cacophony of voices from across America’s vibrant civil society rather than trying to control the space itself. The CIA is unlikely to be competitive in this arena, and is that really what the agency responsible for collection and assessment of vital intelligence should be spending its effort on? Simply put, the U.S. government affords too much import to social media presence.

The government may one day become brilliant at hashtag diplomacy, capable of beating IS to the punch. But that would seem unlikely given the structural advantages the medium gives to sensationalism and attack on established positions. The strategic clarity demonstrated by IS will likely be elusive for a society and a government that take time to unite and have many different policy debates occurring simultaneously. Our best bet is to rely less on government messaging and instead bombard our adversaries with the spectrum of American activism, letting organizations like Mercy Corps or Spirit of America that are forces for good in the world be the emissaries of our policies. After all, it was alert citizens who noticed and publicized the Islamic State "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wearing an expensive watch.

If only Tim Howard could save Washington from itself.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake