If the West really wants to destroy the Islamic State’s “deceptive media halo,” we need to take a page from them and foster our own forms of crowdsourced messages. First and foremost, Western nations must focus on broadcasting the stories of refugees, told in their own words—words that would strongly undermine the “remaining and expanding” narrative that is so crucial to the Islamic State’s identity. In the organization’s digital content, the caliphate is depicted as a veritable Eden, a place where placid lakes literally teem with fish and the well-fed children are always smiling. What if we gave refugees the digital tools and Internet access necessary to produce content that not only rebuts those depictions but also conveys the daily horrors of living in a society where callous men of violence run the show? To make this possible, we must guarantee safety for them and their families, for the Islamic State is never shy about exacting retribution against those who reveal its flaws.
The US should also give Islamic State defectors, particularly those with American roots, a chance to share their unfiltered tales of disillusionment. As things stand now, those who return from the caliphate are more liable to land in prison than in front of an audience; one Houston-area man, Asher Abid Khan, is facing 30 years behind bars simply for going to Turkey, where he decided to abandon his plan to enter the caliphate and returned home. Instead of treating every returnee like an irredeemable villain, our government should instead encourage them to share their own stories—tales that will not only illuminate the Islamic State’s wickedness but also highlight our own society’s pluralism and mercy. Determining which returnees are truly no longer threats will be tricky, but deradicalization programs in Europe in particular are yielding data that can help us build the right psychological assessment tools.
These authentic stories will always be more powerful than coordinated government efforts.
Brendan I. Koerner, “Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War”, Wired (April 2016), 83.