What we can learn from the way IS communicates

The masthead of Islamic State's official magazine Dabiq.

No matter how you view its objectives and actions, few would disagree that Islamic State (IS) communicates with impact. In a lecture at Massey University’s Auckland campus today, Dr Chris Galloway will explain how IS has been so effective in reaching out to its target audience around the world.

Dr Galloway, who is the head of Massey University’s public relations programme, says his presentation will be delivered in the “spirit of academic enquiry”.

“I am not interested in promoting what they are doing so much as examining it from an academic point of view and saying, ‘What does this mean for professional communicators and those who want to counteract what IS is doing?’”

He says that while it may not be something many people care to admit, IS has been successful in recruiting many Muslims to its cause, including those living in the West.

“Would you characterise their communications programme as successful? Judged by the reports of the number of people who have been flocking to their banner – yes. Judged by the intimidation effect on local populations – yes. In terms of arousing horror in the West – yes.

“They are reaching their very particular audience, which is young to middle-aged Muslim men and women, and saying, ‘The Caliphate is here now. You are obliged to submit and join us.’ Many Muslims see these views as extreme, but others do relate to it and would like to see the law of Islam established throughout the world.”


Dr Chris Galloway.

Strategic, symbolic and synchronised

Dr Galloway says Islamic State’s messaging is very sophisticated and targeted to its intended audience.

“The vision of an Islamic State being made a reality is enticing. If you are sitting in a slum somewhere, you have no job, no prospects and you’re despised because you’re Muslim… you can begin to see how such a message becomes appealing

“And it’s not all execution videos. They also tell potential recruits that life in the Islamic State is good, and claim they will be looked after and be part of an elite group. The sense of power and belonging that goes with that is a heady mixture for disaffected Muslims.”

There is also heavy symbolism in everything they do, Dr Galloway says, that resonates with those who take a fundamentalist view of the Koran.

“For example their magazine Dabiq might show people who have been executed – but will go to great lengths to lay out, in a seemingly rational way, the theological argument for what they are doing. They justify why the enemies of Islam deserve death so, to their supporters, it’s not brutality just for the sake of brutality.”

He says IS has very different messages for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, a fact that is not often appreciated by Western media.

“For a Western, non-Muslim audience, the message is: ‘We are establishing the Caliphate on Earth, we are serious about our state building project and we are coming for you.’ They would love to draw the West into a confrontation on the ground because that’s part of the apocalyptic vision. There’s a sense of provocation, of ‘bring it on’.”

Like all effective public relations programmes, he says, Islamic State takes a strategic approach to communication.

“They have a very clear structure supporting what they are doing, with a media council at the top of their communication hierarchy and more than 30 media offices in regions they control. Their messaging is controlled, consistent and theologically disciplined.

“And they are synchronised, using a vast range of channels – from twitter, chat rooms and online videos, to billboards and merchandise like baseball caps. This, along with the powerful religious appeal and symbolism, make it a difficult message to effectively counter.”


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