As part of its “Beyond Propaganda” series, the Legatum Institute hosted two panel discussions that offered an analysis of the threat to democracy posed by the internet and conspiracies—particularly when used by extremist groups such as ISIS.
The event also launched a new Legatum Institute report, Cyber Propaganda, which examines how the internet has transformed disinformation and propaganda.
The discussion included a special appearance from Srdja Popovic, the student leader who helped bring down the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and has been called “the secret architect of global revolution”.
The first session analysed ISIS’s extensive social media strategy, and discussed what an effective counter-propaganda strategy might look like. Charlie Winter, Senior Research Associate at the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, Georgia State University, argued that ISIS’s approach to propaganda is formidable—but not because of the gruesome videos the West are familiar with. Their less notorious output is equally as important: videos which cover apparently mundane themes, such as maintaining clean streets and preserving wildlife, are fundamental in convincing people that “ISIS can offer them something that they are not getting elsewhere.”
Winter argued that, in response to ISIS, civic groups need to create counter-propaganda that is more competitive in terms of quantity and narrative scope: only a wide variety of narratives will challenge the effectiveness of ISIS’s strategy of audience differentiation. The most effective messengers, argued Winter, are not governments but civic actors. Katrina Elledge, US Defence Department Analyst, showed how civic groups were important in the success of 2014’s EuroMaidan movement. Through social media, they delivered up-to-date news in several languages and provided social services including medical assistance and IT help.
In the second session, Popovic described how governments frequently accuse activists of being involved in a conspiracy. He recalled his own experience, when Otpor!, the Serbian movement which he was part of, was labelled a terrorist movement by the government—despite the protestors, who had an average age of 21, being firmly committed to non-violence. Anne Applebaum, Director of the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum, illustrated that this was nothing new: governments have accused oppositionists of being part of a conspiracy throughout history, not least during the Soviet Union’s ‘show trials’ of the 1930s.
Ways for activists to overcome these accusations were discussed. Rashad Ali, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, suggested that it is important to deploy reality against false narratives: “the way to break someone who is delusional”, he argued, “is to build up the number of facts.” Popovic, speaking from his experience overthrowing Milosevic, argued that the most effective way of challenging a narrative, be it from a government or extremist group, is to mock it. He also advocated focusing on bread-and-butter issues, not the grand conspiracy, in order to mobilize support: “you pick the battles you can win”, he advised.
The discussion was moderated by Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to the Transitions Forum.
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Video Interviews with Srdja Popovic
- Beating the Islamist Propagandists, by Peter Pomerantsev and Charlie Winter, Politico (View)
- Event Photos (View)
About the Beyond Propaganda Series
The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.
The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.