A New Year’s Wish: Stop the Trolling

As people around the world come to the sudden realisation that their New Year resolutions for 2015 may have been just bit too aspirational, there is one option packaged and ready as a substitute. For the vast majority it asks them to do nothing … absolutely, nothing. This year could actually be the year that for many, a resolution is finally ticked off.

The Social Media War

Since ISIL began its murderous campaign through Syria and Iraq, young Daesh, and their less adventurous supporters, have taken to disseminating their exploits across social media. Having learnt the power of the technology to garner notoriety and support as revolution swept through the Middle East during the past few years, ISIL and its affiliates have embraced social media’s ability to reinforce an organisational narrative in a way that is normally the preserve of multi-million dollar advertising budgets. Recent reporting indicates more than 45,000 Twitter accounts disseminating Daesh material have been created as part of the social media strategy. Key to the strategy is exploiting the susceptibility of those who propagate the material on their behalf. ISIL, enabled by a propaganda arm with skills in production and dissemination to rival the best of commercial marketing firms, has focused on developing a global, virtual, army of supporters to act as dissemination agents.

The unmasking of an Indian businessman, far removed from the physical fight, as one of the most profligate ISIL propaganda agents on Twitter is no real surprise. For the most part, online Daesh material is aimed at defined target audiences and given the amount of product disseminated, only those focused on the area have any real sense of the full extent pinging through cyberspace. Murderous, brutal, highly exaggerative and fear inducing products are designed to influence those in Daesh occupied areas and their immediate surrounds.

Murderous, brutal, highly exaggerative and fear inducing products are designed to influence those in Daesh occupied areas and their immediate surrounds.

Calm, coherent creations with high production values and strong links to an aspirational future based on the great Islamic societies of the past are designed for Western populations, potential recruits and the media. Most interest has been on the impact this propaganda has on those susceptible to the Daesh call to arms — the young, disaffected, poorly educated who have responded to the vivid imagery, historical allegory and chance for guaranteed entry to Paradise. However, the revelation that an Indian family man with a penchant for Hawaiian themed parties doubled as a leading propagandist highlights a specifically cultivated target group — those who can carry out support for the ISIL campaign online. They are the outsourced PR agents engaged in a social media battleground playing out every second of everyday, across multiple platforms, and in multiple languages.

Old Technique, New Technology

While the content and target audience of Daesh propaganda is relatively easy to monitor, analyse and if prepared to expend the resources, refute, ISIL have tapped into a defining feature of social media to further their own ends. Social media very quickly forms echo chambers as users’ friend, like, or follow others offering material or opinion that appeals to them. It allows those with strongly formed opinions to cultivate those searching for answers in a similar fashion to the early newsletters produced by Guttenberg’s Press — but in real time, and globally. Social media comprises a complex mix of disseminators, engaged communicators, and passive recipients. Importantly it also offers a degree of anonymity. Entering the echo chamber to offer an alternative opinion that is tailored to the audience and credible is increasingly difficult and heavily reliant on research and analysis. This complexity has not stopped a range of misguided attempts. Unfortunately the vast majority of these attempts have done little to change views and instead added a liberal dose of fertilizer to the opinions Daesh seeks to cultivate.

Entering the echo chamber to offer an alternative opinion that is tailored to the audience and credible is increasingly difficult and heavily reliant on research and analysis.

Key to the issue is a broad misunderstanding of who the actual target audience for social media communication is and the true beauty of the platform. It is this misunderstanding by the vast majority of those who enter the fray, military and civilian alike, which is having life and death consequences throughout the Middle East today. Twitter in particular, but alsoInstagram, YouTube, Vine, SnapChat, and the stalwart Facebook, have become playthings for those who seek to unleash their creativity in support of their chosen cause. Some are driven by the same perverse ideology that has motivated young men to behead others in the name of their chosen God, or the same sense of patriotism that has resulted in generations of men and women joining the armed forces of their nation. Very few, if any, of those creating the content that fills our social media streams are interested in a contrary opinion or view. They are the 10–20 per cent that professional marketers spend no time seeking to engage because changing a formed opinion, persuasion, is immensely difficult and takes considerable time.

Our amateur propagandists rely on the brute force model of communication — one product dominating the channel through the use of online tools to allow scheduled repeats. In military terms, it is relegating communication to suppressing fires. Messaging Harder = #Winning! While suppression has a place, it by itself is not, and never has been, decisive. Suppression is designed to enable manoeuvre. In the amateur social media undertaking, the suppression is occurring in isolation and often hits the wrong target. It has missed the key element of social media that the savvy Daesh propagandists seek to exploit. Social media is an engagement tool. At some point, individuals who have spent days, weeks or even months lurking will enter into the conversation. It is at this point decisive action occurs. The majority will join the virtual army of propagandists but some will enter the physical fray joining an increasing army of foreign fighters. Very few organisations are taking active steps to monitor, engage and influence those shifting from an unformed opinion to a resolute decision about their future.

Bad Propaganda is Easy

For the pseudo-PSYOPers, the effort is simple. Find an appropriate target, whether it be by #tag, user, or forum, and propagate a derogatory witticism repeatedly. A simple graphic telling ‘Jihadi John’ to get back to his Kebab Shop, no doubt allowed its author to feel that he or she was directly contributing to the fight against Islamist extremism. Given its ongoing popularity, the author remains immensely proud of their efforts to ‘disrupt’ Daesh through a derogatory social media product. Disrupting Daesh product by hiding it among repeated posts is an effective tactical action if it is synchronised with an action or event but relying on it as a strategy fails with the simple use of Twitter’s Block function. Worse still however is the impact of these ill-considered PSYOP efforts — online collateral damage.

A poor effort to denigrate an adversary is actually strengthening ISIL’s cause. A complete misreading of target audiences is handing our adversary a win and a steady stream of new recruits. It is information fratricide.

In the very British ‘Jihadi John in the Kebab Shop’ example, the current Daesh fighters from the UK will be in no way influenced to give up their fight and return home because their martial prowess was questioned. It will instead likely reinforce their decision to join ISIL. For hundreds of mixed-up young Muslim kids still in the UK, it is just further evidence, on constant repeat, that the society in which they live really does have something against them and will continue to treat them as different. It will reinforce negative ideas that are already prominent in their communities. It may encourage them to seek out further information about what this so-called Caliphate proclaims to be. For some it may be just enough to push them into lying to their parents and purchasing a one-way ticket to Syria. Unfortunately the UK example is just one of hundreds in multiple languages playing on a constant loop. A poor effort to denigrate an adversary is actually strengthening ISIL’s cause. A complete misreading of target audiences is handing our adversary a win and a steady stream of new recruits. It is information fratricide.

Unfortunately, the willingness of the misguided to conduct psychological operations on our behalf is not new and not solely the domain of social media. Nor is it solely perpetrated by those not wearing uniform. The past decade of conflict against those who draw on a perverse interpretation of Islam has unfortunately offered up a veritable library of ill-conceived acts for the Daesh online army to draw from. A YouTube video with helpful Arabic subtitles extolling soldiers to dip their bullets in pig fat to stop jihadists getting to paradise — done. Creating modified Islamic symbols containing lewd imagery — seen it. Destroying religious texts — multiple unfortunate efforts. Highlighting all of the areas in the Quran that support the argument all Muslims are out to destroy the world as we know it — currently in its 180th iteration. Goats — continue to see it. All of them have one thing in common. They have done more to draw people to the fight against what we believe is right and just than anything our adversary has done to coerce people to their cause. These misguided attempts, unfortunately some of them by serving personnel, are repeatedly used as part of the ongoing information fight against us. Throw in a couple of Crusader patches on uniforms or t-shirts and suddenly the narrative of our adversary is completely realised — by our own stupid actions or those purporting to be acting on our behalf.

Leave it to the Professionals

The current maelstrom on social media is simply the latest manifestation of something as old as conflict itself. Recognising that the information environment is as important as the land, air or maritime domains is vital if we are to take a truly objective look at our support to the current operation. Imposing the same constraints and coordination measures that we take for granted in the employment of offensive fires, combined arms manoeuvre or even logistics frameworks is crucial for success. This is not about limiting the right to freedom of speech or imposing on civil liberties but instead ensuring that all efforts are focused on one thing — winning. We cannot win if by our very actions we support the narrative of our adversary. We definitely cannot win if our actions are generating a continued steam of young men, and an increasing number of women, who would seek martyrdom for the cause.

We cannot win if by our very actions we support the narrative of our adversary.

So what can those not in the actual fight or without the requisite training, education, and analytical horsepower do to support the fight? The answer is simple, effective, and completely legal. Most importantly there is no collateral damage. Report those breaching social media’s End User Agreements through the online tools or to third-party organisations such as the Counter Extremism Project @FightExtremism who can advocate directly with social media organisations to close down accounts. Recent reporting indicates more than 18,000 Daesh-aligned Twitter accounts have been suspended and the impact has been described by one expert who closely monitors the area as ‘devastating’. Leave fighting the narrative to those working in that field who utilise detailed research, analysis and actual, verified, facts to shape and influence.

Take up the New Year’s resolution. Step back from your trolling Twitter,Instagram or YouTube account and let the professionals work to identify and engage with the true target audience of social media interaction — the undecided. If you must ‘do’ something to make 2015 worthwhile, follow @FightExtremism or one of several other organisations seeking to eliminate violent terrorist content or utilising open source research to credibly refute Daesh claims. Act as an online monitoring force for good rather than a pseudo-PSYOPs team which often supports ISILs raison d’etre.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue is an Australian Army Information Operations specialist. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

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