IS, propaganda and that feeling of uncertainty

The collective hysteria behind the threats of the Islamic State is reaching outrageous proportions. The only weapon at our disposal is our understanding of their techniques.

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Mistaking birthday balloons for the initials of Islamic State (IS). That's what happened recently in Sweden, where the Police confused two balloons that formed the number 21, with a symbol of IS, seeing as the window of the flat they were hanging in, seen from outside, appeared to form the number 12 seen backwards. The news was reported in the Swedish Kvällsposten daily, who interviewed Sarah Ericsson, the person who'd just reached 21. She is not apparently connected to IS.

Besides the obvious irony, this is a clear indication of the fire power of the enemy's propaganda, which has revived time proven intimidation techniques. To great effect.

Military tactical experts are fully conversant with the culture of terror. One very striking example can be found  in the Res gestaediviAugusti, the account of the actions of emperor Augustus. Another is Le MoniteurUniversel, the French newspaper that during the rule of Napoleon was an integral part of the leader worship proceedings, seeing as it was compulsory reading in French highschools. Then there's Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Third Reich's propaganda machine,the ReichsministeriumfürVolksaufklärung und Propaganda, between 1933 and 1945.

If we consider briefly how IS communication is conceived, it's easy to find parallels, especially with the latter kind of propaganda. The power displays by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic Caliphate, remind one very closely of those of Adolf Hitler, but with very specific differences that make the message even more captivating, especially in a world that is still coming to grips with the Twin Towers attack of 11 September 2001.

The long carcades flying the IS black flag, the cages they lock their prisoners in, the beheadings, the ritual capital executions, the very concept that an ultimate victory over the West is only a matter of time. And, lastly, the cultural play, as shown in their latest video, in which we see the man IS consider to be their best sniper. A response to the American film "American Sniper", still on screens worldwide, that describes the actions of Chris Kyle, the best ever sniper of the American armed forces. To make their mark they've just had to tweak the collective imagination, with a little factual distortion thrown in. It's all too likely that IS told their fighters that "the USA have produced this film to show they're stronger than us, but it's not true. The truth? Check out this video of our greatest sniper". And thus the message of good versus evil becomes all the more immediate.

Like Goebbels, the IS communication strategists know what to aim at, and the best technology to use to do so. Usually, they communicate using videos, published on the web. The filming technique employed is highlyprofessional and effective, with many tricks taken right out of Hollywood's tool kit, such as slow-motion at the crucial moment in the video, which might be the slaughter of the unfortunate victim, or the extended close up of the IS flag fluttering over some supposedly conquered outpost. Or, as in the video threatening Italy, the location. The beach shown in the video is supposed to suggest that IS is preparing to set sail for Italy from the Libyan coast.

The Swedish incident shows that IS has to some extent achieved its purpose. People are beginning to scare, to sense the terror and a feeling of uncertainty. One of the most successful ploys it has adopted is very simple: it has managed to surround itself with an air of mystery.  What do we really know about IS? What they tell us, with their sophisticated images and communiqués, released with perfect timing, so as to create constant waves of information, which they heighten with the real or even supposed attacks they regularly claim responsibility for. From a communication standpoint al-Baghdadi is bringing Europe to its knees. Everyone here is beginning to feel threatened and looking over their shoulder at anyone close by. The exploitation of the social media and Internet is also very effective in multiplying the impact of the technology at their disposal. IS has instilled in us the fear or dread even, for anyone we are not familiar with. There's an enemy, according to the IS narrative, but it can be pinpointed. There's a flock effect, which suggests the individual should join the masses, capable of providing a better existence and even future. There's the over-simplification of the concepts: good versus evil, Caliphate versus Rome. An essential trait of Nazi propaganda. Finally the 'granfalloon' technique, or minimum group paradigm, a method of persuasion that consists in encouraging subjects to find a feeling of belonging within a group, based on emotions and eschewing reason. The message here is one that claims that through inclusion in a group individuals can find understanding, security, trust. We are better than them, therefore we must fight them. We represent salvation, they embody destruction. IS operates in this fashion, fuelling hatred and using Nazi techniques. After all, as Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "its [propaganda's] effect for the most part must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect".

The subtle warfare being waged has already claimed one unnoticed victim. Our daily life, the freedom of which has been severely curtailed. The Swedish Police's mistake provides ample proof of this fact. But how can we hope to counter this hidden threat? A first step is to explain very clearly how IS is manipulating information, the techniques it is using, which once exposed will help society to develop a rational reaction to them. The second, and more important step, is to promote counter-propaganda. But to do so, one needs be to quite clear about who we are, what we want and the values we believe in. Whether the Western World can come up with definitive answers to these questions right now, is another matter.


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