The U.S. Department of State has come up with a novel way to deal with the Internet-savvy recruitment strategy undertaken by the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS).
Troll them on YouTube.
In an extremely graphic video that uses news footage, closed-circuit TV and plenty of other video obtained in ways you'd be wise not to think too hard about, DoS shows off some of the less glorious aspects of wannabe-caliphate's business strategy: suicide bombings of mosques, crucifixions, beheadings and similar.
The video is part of a program begun late last year directed at Muslims vulnerable to recruitment by violent groups. It's called "Think Again Turn Away," and it already has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a YouTube channel.
Interestingly, much of the Think Again Twitter activity is devoted to trolling users who vocally support violent groups including ISIS, Boko Haram and others. Tweet out "I heart #ISIS b/c Westerners invaded Iraq YOLO" and you'll get U.S. propaganda in your notifications feed: dollar figures for Iraq reconstruction, stats about soldiers punished for misconduct, pictures of mosques being destroyed by suicide bombs.
— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) August 28, 2014
Commentators have said for a while now that the war for Muslim hearts and minds is being fought on social media, but increased attention is being paid to that side of the conflict now that ISIS has disseminated two beheading videos (of U.S. reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff) in the last two weeks and threatens to publicly murder Brit aid worker David Haines in a third.
The ISIS display of public, ceremonial violence is one of the things that makes its pitch profoundly unappetizing to some, but it also seems to be a major selling point to others. The State Department's counter-propaganda campaign may be branding the organization as bloody and hateful by including only its Muslim victims in videos like the one below, but it's not totally clear that this is at odds with the vision held by the group's supporters.
George Orwell had a good handle on this mind-set when he reviewed Mein Kampf in 1940. "Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them 'I offer you struggle, danger and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet," Orwell wrote. "Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation 'Greatest happiness of the greatest number' is a good slogan, but at this moment 'Better an end with horror than a horror without end' is a winner."
The State Department is fighting a battle to literally brand ISIS's competing plan for the Middle East as awful and unpalatable. But emphasizing its violence may not be the way to go. Where there's already so much suffering, people may simply want to believe, however wrongly, that they're suffering for a reason.
Warning: Video is extremely graphic and may be upsetting.
Disclosure: The author has family members who work for the U.S. Department of State.