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Why trying to defeat the 'Islamic State' online misses the point

The 'Islamic State' is widely considered to be winning the social media war of ideas against Western efforts to counter the extremists’ propaganda online. Experts have just one problem with this thesis - it’s wrong.

When it was #link:http://fortune.com/2015/12/10/isis-smartphone-app/:revealed# earlier this month that the "Islamic State" has a new smartphone app the news fit perfectly into the well-established perception of the group as that of an Internet juggernaut. Particularly compared to its original, al Qaeda, best known for intermittent audio or video recordings in Arabic from its leaders, the "Islamic State" with its steady content stream on social media truly updated terrorist propaganda for the 21st century.

The group's supposed Internet savviness has been widely considered a key tool in its successful campaign to recruit thousands of foreign fighters from Europe, the US and elsewhere. At the same time, the West's efforts counter the narrative presented by "IS" online have generally been #link:http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/world/middleeast/isis-is-winning-message-war-us-concludes.html?_r=0:viewed as ineffective#. As a result, the US and the EU have repeatedly vowed to bolster its counter-messaging strategy versus the "IS" online.

But experts argue that Western efforts to counter the extremist narrative online are mostly misplaced.

Too much hype about social media

"With regard to the Internet, I suspect that the medium is not really the issue here," said Gilbert Ramsay, author of "Jihadi Culture on the World Wide Web" and a terrorism scholar at the University of St. Andrews. "Recruitment - online or offline - is primarily a personal thing, about cultivating meaningful relationships. It very seldom happens simply because of people passively consuming propaganda."

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Trying to counter extremist messages online does not address the root problem

Cristina Archetti, a political communications scholar at the University of Oslo and author of "Understanding Terrorism in the Age of Global Media" agrees: "There is far too much hype at the moment about social media." This overblown focus on technology obscures the more important question why some people are attracted and embrace radical messages.

"Extremism is not a virus one becomes infected by stumbling on some messages on social media," said Archetti. "It is a deliberate choice."

Successful narrative?

Both scholars also question the widely accepted notion that "IS'' Internet propaganda is vastly successful and sophisticated.

As an example, Ramsey points to the group's counterproductive posting of horrific execution videos on the Internet. After releasing numerous such videos on the Internet in 2014 and early 2015, "IS" seems to have finally learned that this undermines its cause and toned down the practice.

Archetti finds the commonly held notion that the IS' narrative is successful "highly questionable."

"In fact, if they were so successful, why are not more people joining the group?" she said, adding that compared to past conflicts like the Spanish or the Greek civil war, "IS" attracts far fewer foreign fighters. "And yet there was no internet or social media back then."

Since not the message or the technological platform, but rather individual inclinations cause people to join Islamist groups, counter-messaging efforts like the US State Department's "Think Again, Turn Away" campaign on Twitter make little sense, said Archetti. The #link:https://twitter.com/thinkagain_dos:State Department# campaign comes with an additional problem, she noted, as it features the Department's logo on it. "Which Islamist extremist would want to listen to what the US government is saying?"

Practice what you preach

Instead of launching rather ineffective media campaigns to counter the extremists' message the West should do two far more difficult things, suggest the experts.

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Western societies are the best counter-narrative to extremists

"IS must be allowed to discredit itself," said Ramsey. "This it will do - indeed is doing - gradually. The key thing is to remain calm and not take any drastic measures while this process gradually works itself out."

"Countering extremism is not a ping-pong game of messages," said Archetti. "We law-abiding citizens who live every day the values of our society are the counter-narrative. The most useful activity against extremism is working towards good governance and a society where the values of Western democracy are not only preached but actually and concretely delivered. It is easier, of course, to blame social media."

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