Digital technologies have long offered transformative challenges to traditional processes. That’s always been part of the challenge and part of the fun. For much of the young life of digital diplomacy it has followed two parallel paths of difference to its old-school, traditional sibling.
It has, in the first instance, made diplomacy a much more public affair – as likely to be played out on digital and social platforms and it is in the high ceilinged rooms of foreign ministries. Diplomatic etiquettes replayed digitally – not so much changing the landscape of diplomacy as offering it up for more public record.
More importantly, digital diplomacy has been about talking to new audiences and, especially, new stakeholders. Many, though far from all, of the great challenges in diplomacy now arise from non-state actors – most seriously from violent extremists such as ISIS.
The challenge now emerging for digital diplomats and for security services is that the digital battle with such non-state actors in increasingly private. The rise of messenger apps and the targeted one-to-one conversations which take place within them means that there is a whole new challenge ahead.
Organisations such as, and especially, ISIS recognised very early on the opportunity that the digital revolution provided. The ability to create and distribute content is a democratising and liberating force, but its power was grotesquely reflected back to us in the use of videos and photographs of atrocities and their adoption of a range of platforms: from social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, peer-to-peer messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot and content systems such as JustPasteit.
The fluid organisation of ISIS was reflected in its media operations, with accounts and content created, distributed and uploaded right across their intended Caliphate, from West Africa through the Middle East. In 2015, the Quilliam Foundation estimated that ISIS releases an average of 38 news items a day – and that includes 20-minute videos, audio clips, photo essays and prose in a range of languages that match its geographical ambitions.
The digital-only output is driven by the most basic of modern truisms – the world is getting more digital and, rather more importantly, more mobile. We’re no longer tethered to desktops and laptops. The growth of the mobile web (and mobile apps) means that information can be received everywhere, and at any time and with mobility comes sociability – the digital spaces in which we spend our time are now based around service (Uber, Amazon, etc.); around aggregation (Spotify) or around user content and conversation (YouTube, Twitter, Vine and the rest).
The large information brands occupy less and less of our attention. Where content used to be in the hands of the few – newspapers, radio and TV, it’s now in the hands of the many, and it’s shared amongst the many too. So ideas which would have been stifled through a lack of oxygen even ten years ago can now fly, driven by people who would never have had a platform or an audience before, but who now have huge reach to drive their messages. It is the most complex information economy we’ve ever seen and it’s getting more and more so, driven by increasing data and understanding (and therefore targeting of the vulnerable demographic). It gives us all freedom of speech, but that doesn’t come without a cost.
And that’s the stuff that’s easy to track – the rise of the messenger apps, the chat apps, the VOIP apps means that the conversations that were once easy to follow from the outside suddenly go underground.The assumption is that messenger apps will overtake social networks to become the world’s most active social platforms in the next 12 months. That provides a huge challenge in this context. The conversations are private, and often encrypted, so you can track or join conversations as you can on social. It’s harder to insert yourself into those spaces.
The use of social media by ISIS is actually pretty standard in commercial terms and would be familiar to many branding and marketing agencies. The innovation is in applying those commercial techniques in this environment:
There is a progression for all brands, including ISIS, which goes from brand awareness (the shock and awe) to first contact (the call to arms, often fuelled by religious fervor) to repeat contacts (grooming, and again based on a call to religious duty) to recruitment (which is when the conversation moves to the messenger apps). That moves the customer, the target from awareness to interest to desire to action. And it’s done through outreach and targeting and through “good’’ content amplified through social media, which also provides the platform for engagement and contact.
The challenge for Western government agencies, working both overtly and covertly, is therefore to disrupt that flow. In public channels, that can be done by offering counter-narratives. In messenger-style apps, that’s necessarily covert work, done by proxies – agents and trusted third parties, who could also be unwitting carriers of those messages.
So it becomes a battle of ideas, and that starts with perception of the ‘brand’. You might think that there needs to be no “brand awareness” of ISIS. They are already pretty famous. But the awareness they drive is a different one to that presented on the TV news. It’s a classic brand dilemma – the media portray you differently to how you want to be seen, so how to create a different image for those you want to recruit to your side. Step one is the classic media conspiracy approach – you can trust nothing that these people tell you, except the bits we like, of course. So the pictures of atrocities, which they like, are encouraged. At the same time they build an idea of the life of those recruits – the Jihadi cool approach, which is all black t shirts, sunglasses and guns. It is, in short, aspirational.
The counter-narrative to this has been designed to show that the reality of life as an ISIS fighter is grim. Hunger, suffering and death are about as good as it gets. But there’s no point the government telling you this – the people they are targeting don’t trust them, their messaging is often clumsy and culturally leaden-footed. What works better is a trusted third party. if it’s ISIS, then that third party would almost need to share the religious and cultural values of the demographic we’re fighting over. The work of the Quillam Foundation provides one such example, not least because they can also offer a viewpoint of an alternative choice – a view of the West in which Islam can flourish, rather than fight.
After awareness comes contact, often religious calls to arms or to duty. The sort of siren call that lured three British girls from Hackney to Syria. Again, the counter-narrative has been about the reality, with the deliverers having the credibility to deliver – take Sara Khan’s open letter to the Muslim girls of the UK, pointing to a rather different reality, and, again, to a different way for girls in such a position to live their lives, just as devoutly, but not as violently.
In that context, the attitude of social media companies (the hosts of such messages) is important. While Facebook and Twitter maintain that they delete terrorist and sympathetic accounts from their platform, they are still heavily reliant on users flagging those accounts. At the same time, wholesale deletion can be counter-productive, removing the opportunity for security agencies to track individuals and head the hints they are giving about planned activity. There’s no easy answer.
Google, meanwhile, has been experimenting with adding links to terrorist-related searches which push users to the counter-narrative. That’s no small thing for them – they rely on us believing that they are an agnostic deliverer of search results (however much that is gamed by the SEO process). But they claim success in significant numbers of users being diverted to content designed to push them away from ISIS and the like.
But all too soon, the conversation has moved from public to private – the encrypted messenger services. This is where it gets tricky. If the connection is made here, then the real one-to-one or one-to-few persuasion starts in personal conversations or group chats. By the time the connection is being made on surespot, Telegram, Threema and other platforms, then it is getting serious. And persuading the platforms to tackle the issue is tricky. All of them would lose their business model the second they handed over conversations or data to security agencies.
This is where the conversation gets detailed, the persuasion heavy and the opportunity to turn it to detail and logistics becomes tempting. It is, in short grooming. There are groups where the instructions to either travel to war zones or to undertake action in their own countries is detailed and frightening. This is hard core. Infiltration would seem to be the only response. The use of a trusted messenger to divert messages can interrupt the flow of conversation, niggle away at the trust and break the bonds that people have created. Tricky, detailed, morally-compromising work. By the time it gets to that stage, it’s beyond the triteness of branded social media campaigns and into a different kind of work.
The step beyond that – the action taken is not the purchase of a pair of running shoes, but the purchase of a weapon or a ticket to Syria. By that stage, the logic of the consumer funnel has fallen away, these are not rational decisions, not by ‘normal’ measures at least. The ideal of the content strategy to encourage peaceful behaviour moves from ‘optimistic’ to fanciful’. The logic of the consumer wars only goes so far in this model of real wars.
But when the digital campaigning is so powerful, it needs challenging, otherwise the recruitment flow will never slow. Aping the mechanics of the digital agency – offering an alternative brand, and backing that with an alternative narrative which both undermines the Jihadi hero story but also offers an alternative for those disaffected youths to choose, is a tiny part of the battle, but one for digital diplomats and their counterparts in security services must take on. Where digital diplomacy was once simply a kind of civil service hipsterdom, it’s now got very real, with very significant challenges ahead. The shift from public digital platforms to private; from one-to-many to one-to-few is big – but the stakes are too high to shy away from the task.