The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is taking the fight against Isis online. @UKAgainstISIL, a new Twitter account operated by the FCO, is providing 'updates on the UK Government’s ongoing work to defeat ISIL'.
Since 2014, Isis have been a feature of online life. Their supporters and affiliates use the internet to communicate with each other, radicalise their sympathisers, host content and spread fear. Digital terrorism is a new phenomenon, and one that is proving difficult to counter. Twitter has been a staple of Isis propaganda exercises since the start and @UKAgainstISIL is the latest attempt at resisting this, but it isn’t without its problems.
The most striking contrast is the quality of the content. See for yourself. Watch the video released by the UKAgainstISIL account on its first day on the job:
— UK Against ISIL (@UKAgainstISIL) August 28, 2015
That same day, 28 August, the Isis media team released a trailer for one of their own forthcoming productions. You can watch it here if you wish (it’s perfectly safe for work – no blood and guts).
The contrast is staggering. The UKAgainstISIL video looks like an early version of Powerpoint. The Isis video looks like the trailer to a multi-million pound Hollywood blockbuster. Jihadis on horseback ride in slow motion across the desert, the black flag of the Caliphate fluttering behind them. The dramatic captions that talk of prophecies unfolding are cut with historical re-enactments of the caliphates of old. An arrow fired from a bow transforms into a jumbo jet. A flaming boulder fired from a catapult is juxtaposed with stolen surface-to-air missile launchers. Isis clearly have a special effects team to hand.
It isn’t just the quality of the content that's worth comparing. In the week since its launch, UKAgainstISIL sent 25 tweets. This is a pebble in an ocean of noise. Meanwhile a vast amount of messages are going in the other direction, sent by thousands of fanatics devoted to spreading news of the caliphate. Members of the so-called ‘media mujahideen’ – Isis sympathisers not necessarily based in Iraq or Syria but committed to waging a digital war – will send hundreds of carefully constructed pieces of propaganda a day. The UKAgainstISIL account is probably manned by a few civil servants in Whitehall.
As Isis propaganda has spread around the world, there have been calls to tackle it head on. Some have called for censorship, either banning social media platforms or pressurising them to take more responsibility for the content being posted on their sites. Others have called for counter-speech, organising campaigns like #NotInMyName.
A cynic would say these efforts have been in vain. At best, measuring their effectiveness is nearly impossible: we have no idea how many people have decided against travelling to Syria, and what convinced them not to. Nevertheless, censorship is a clumsy game of whack-a-mole, often resisted by social media companies who see freedom of expression as central to their product. Online counter-radicalisation efforts have been sparse and, above all, unable to replicate the passion of the radicalisers. Perhaps the only group to have really dented Isis’s online presence has been the Hacktivist collective Anonymous. ‘Operation Ice ISIS’, which took down thousands of Twitter accounts and extremist content, has shown the hacking group to be an unlikely but effective ally.
It's pretty clear that the FCO’s @UKAgainstISIL account isn’t a tool of counter-radicalisation. The Foreign Office probably realises that it has little to say that might resonate with would-be extremists and even if they did, Twitter is a medium as badly suited to government communications as it is well-suited to Isis propaganda. Rather, this is a clear attempt at telling our side of the story in order to counter the atrocities perpetrated by Isis. Whether it is the killing of innocents, crimes against women or the destruction of historical monuments, our news is filled with plenty of horror.
With all the time spent trying to find ways to counter extremist narratives, we have neglected to write our own. We have not celebrated our moments of military success or those who have died fighting against Isis. We have not celebrated the aid and relief we as a country have provided to refugees and those still in Syria and Iraq. We have not celebrated the millions of Muslims in the UK who have spoken out against extremism or who personally feel nothing but disgust for Isis.
It is the victor who writes history, and we are a long way from any kind of victory. But starting to write some kind of narrative might be a first step to victory. Providing a convincing alternative to Isis's politics and ideologies cannot purely be a matter of criticism; we need to tell the story of our society, our politics and our ideologies.
Alex Krasodomski is a researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. He can be found tweeting @akrasodomski