To achieve this separation, governments should provide funding, logistical support, and training in communications best practices, whether to groups already doing counter-radicalization work or to those wishing to start from scratch. Since all this must contribute toward the shared goal of undermining the Islamic State’s brand, it will only work if governments never publicly endorse these actors or include their communications on official channels, unless specifically requested otherwise. With governmental support and the coalition’s core messaging priorities in hand, local actors will be able to benefit from a globally coordinated campaign that will, in theory, amplify the anti-Islamic State message more widely, in turn creating a better condition for success in each local context.
There are two major benefits to empowering such communicators. First, doing so would dramatically increase the volume of audience engagements, which is a fast way to expand the number of people delivering anti-Islamic State communications. Second, and more importantly, using the right channel to broadcast to each audience increases a message’s impact.
For example, if a government wants to get support for a policy change, it could be better off targeting the network of influential people around a given individual (say, John Doe), than by advertising in his local paper. John is far more likely to be convinced by his friends, family, or others in his community that something is worth backing than by a government nakedly pushing its agenda. Likewise, if the government is buying advertisements in a newspaper’s print edition, but John only reads his local on a tablet, he’ll never see the message in the first place. In both of these cases, if the government chooses the right channel—something it can only do if it has a strong understanding of its audience (in this case, John and others similar to him)—it has a much greater chance of convincing people of its argument.
Governments still have an integral role to play in the communications battle with the Islamic State. But they must shift their primary information activities away from direct communications, to flexibly supporting and trusting local actors to deliver messages on their behalf—a model reminiscent of that currently employed by the Islamic State.
Local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments, but they need to be given the freedom to do so. This requires a large dose of autonomy. If, for example, a local actor decides that a poem is the best way to reach his or her target audience, then so be it. If they want to deliver the same idea through an animation, a conversation over coffee, a tweet, or a pamphlet, that is okay, too. Likewise, if the message itself needs to be tailored to be effective, that is acceptable. If, to get around the “Islamic-State-is-a-Western-conspiracy” trope that is so widely accepted in the Middle East, the anti-Islamic State message is dressed up in a way that does not necessarily cater to Western fancies, then that must be accepted as a necessary evil. For example, a Friday sermon criticizing the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam would need to be considered acceptable, even if it contained a condemnation of Israel’s settlements. A closely monitored “anything goes” approach is the coalition’s only chance of success.