Regaining the Initiative and Defeating ISIS’s Social Media Campaign

  • September 15, 2015
  • Mr. David T. Roscoe

In September 2014, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), stating: “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” In one sense, the President is correct, Western efforts to reason with ISIS to halt their brutal campaign are almost certainly futile. However, in another sense, the President’s statement reveals a flawed strategy and a myopic focus on using force at the expense of waging an effective war of ideas. To say ISIS only understands the language of force ignores their effective use of social media to recruit, fundraise, and encourage attacks in Western nations. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to counter ISIS’s social media campaign fail to neutralize ISIS’s appeal to sympathetic audiences - appearing stiff, unimaginative, and contrived. With military options against ISIS limited by political and economic considerations, the U.S. must re-examine its strategic communications and improve its use of social media. This paper explains why the U.S. must adapt to emerging social media technologies, build culturally resonant messages, and exploit several key weaknesses in ISIS’s strategic messaging.