Kerry recruits Hollywood in ISIS propaganda war, but some are skeptical

Kerry in Hollywood State Dept Flickr 5.jpg
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Fox Studio Co-Chairman Stacey Snider, as Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Gianopulos and Warner Brothers Kevin Tsujihara stand nearby, before meeting with a group of movie industry executives during a visit to Universal Studios in Burbank, California, on February 16, 2016. (State Department)

On his way to Rancho Mirage, California to meet with leaders from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Secretary of State John Kerry stopped in Los Angeles Tuesday to appear on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show and to meet with Hollywood executives about fighting ISIS.


"Great convo w studio execs in LA. Good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter #Daesh narrative," Kerry tweeted afterward, using another name for the Islamic State.
Great convo w studio execs in LA. Good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter  narrative.

Great convo w studio execs in LA. Good to hear their perspectives & ideas of how to counter  narrative.
Some have questioned the strategy behind the meeting.
"Is he looking for the next Wolverine movie to be Wolverine vs ISIS?" a reporter asked atWednesday's State Department press briefing.
Slate article mocked Kerry for holding the meeting and publicizing it.
"Asking the creators of Spiderman and Batman for help to beat ISIS?" Elliot Hannon wrote. "Does that feel like a good look for the U.S.? To the cynic, that seems like something you might want to play a bit closer to the vest."


"#ISISMovies" trended on Twitter Thursday after a conservative radio host encouraged listeners to pitch ideas for movies that might have come out of such a summit.
So @JohnKerry met with Hollywood executives to: "counter narrative!"

Any suggestions for:???

→ 

So @JohnKerry met with Hollywood executives to: "counter narrative!"

Any suggestions for:???

→ 

 Fast Times at Baghdad High @skiplacombe @KAL79 @DocThompsonShow

 Fast Times at Baghdad High @skiplacombe @KAL79 @DocThompsonShow

State Department spokesman Mark Toner insisted the meeting was valuable, though.
"These are the people, I think, widely recognized who are some of the best communicators out there," Toner said Wednesday, "and they run a highly profitable industry that is expert at conveying messages to a worldwide audience."
Toner emphasized that the government is not outsourcing counter-extremist messaging to Hollywood, but these people know how to communicate so "we should be seeking their advice on how we can do our job better."
"I don't want to say that yesterday they were inking deals on movies that will come out," he said, but he added the State Department would like to have more meetings like this.
 

Executives who attended the meeting told the Wrap that they discussed combating terrorist narratives, content piracy, and world perception of the "American brand" with Kerry, but no concrete ideas or commitments came out of it.
Terrorism experts are uncertain whether devoting more resources to counter-messaging is a wise approach to fighting ISIS.
"I don't want to say that it's completely unhelpful, but I think we should be very cautious about overestimating the counterterrorism value," said Max Abrahms, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University.
According to Abrahms, ISIS propaganda is often given too much credit for the group's success and can be, in fact, counter-productive to its goals. Many people who view it may already be radicalized beforehand, rather than driven to extremism by it.
The couple responsible for the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December pledged allegiance to ISIS, but authorities believe they were radicalized years before the group rose to power.
"The propaganda also has what I call an attrition effect," Abrahms said, "which is that many people, when exposed to the propaganda, are actually repulsed by Islamic State."
He observed that the beheading of James Foley drove the U.S. to become more engaged in the fight against ISIS, and the burning of a Jordanian pilot had a similar effect in that country.
 

The fact that ISIS is very good at producing propaganda does not mean that the U.S. must produce equally effective counter-messaging. Abrahms called that a "logical fallacy."
"By the same logic, because Islamic State is beheading people, the key to combating this group is to practice our beheading skills," he said.
"I'm not sure that the answer to the Islamic State is to try to beat them at their own game."
Kerry's meetings in Hollywood may have some value, according to John Cohen, former counter-terrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security and currently a professor at Rutgers. He also warned against placing too much emphasis on counter-propaganda, though.
"It's certainly worth having the discussion," Cohen said, but he added, "it's only one part of the solution."
Cohen pointed to research delving into why ISIS propaganda resonates with young westerners who share certain characteristics. A recent Psychiatric Times article explored elements that go beyond religion and politics, including family life, socialization, and a feeling of being disconnected.
"It gives them a sense of meaning," Cohen explained, "not that they truly are adherent to the religious or other ideological elements of the message. It fulfills a very basic need for feeling a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose."


As a result, counter-propaganda that challenges the ISIS message on a religious level may not work.




"I think we really are only now beginning to understand the complexity of the issue that we're dealing with," Cohen said.
Some local communities in the U.S., like Dearborn, Michigan and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have had success with intervention programs that identify individuals behaving in a manner consistent with radicalization and divert them away from violence.
"I think what we are beginning to hear from law enforcement and others...is a call for much more emphasis on the on-the-ground detection and intervention capabilities," Cohen said.
He cautioned that the 2017 federal budget is set to reduce grants to the kind of state and local agencies that are responsible for these programs.
"They need those funds to be better able to identify and intervene in cases where you have people inspired by the ideology but acting independent of the terror organization," he said.
David Fidler, an adjunct senior fellow for cyber security with the Council on Foreign Relations, also suggested that the focus on counter-narratives may be misguided.
"We might be trying to deal with a symptom of a deeper problem," said Fidler, a professor of law at Indiana University.
However, he offered a different theory regarding what makes ISIS propaganda so effective, which is that the terror group is successfully holding territory and taking on some of the world's greatest military forces.
"The source of their power comes from their control of territory," he said.
He sees that as the more urgent challenge for the U.S. to confront.


"I'm not against, in principle, trying to address how the Islamic State exploits the internet and social media," Fidler said. But counter-narratives and counter-messaging may only have limited impact, no matter how polished they are, as long as the caliphate is still standing.

This is not the first time Washington has reached out to Hollywood for help in the war on terrorism.
Soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration arranged ameeting with entertainment industry executives to discuss ways they could assist in the war effort, including possible production of public service announcements to spread patriotic messages abroad.
There was also a series of summits of screenwriters, directors, and producers at the Institute for Creative Technology (ICT) to dream up plausible terrorist attack scenarios to help the Army prepare for future threats.
"The hope was that by tapping into this creativity, maybe they would come up with new ideas," ICT Executive Director Richard Lindheim told the Chicago Tribune at the time. The results of those summits were never made public, but more than a dozen scenarios were reportedly sent back to D.C. for study.


Whether Secretary Kerry's meeting Tuesday will lead to further cooperation or produce valuable new ideas remains to be seen, but experts fear the U.S. government is simply the wrong messenger to deliver anti-ISIS propaganda.

"The social media marketing gurus' ideas largely didn’t work"@selectedwisdom on counter messaging against terrorismhttp://www.fpri.org/geopoliticus/2016/02/silicon-valley-meets-snake-eaters-state-departments-countermessaging-goes-back-future 

"The social media marketing gurus' ideas largely didn’t work"@selectedwisdom on counter messaging against terrorismhttp://www.fpri.org/geopoliticus/2016/02/silicon-valley-meets-snake-eaters-state-departments-countermessaging-goes-back-future 

"The key thing that seems to be emerging from the analysis and study of counter-messaging...first, it really cannot emanate from governments," Fidler said.
"People aren't going to listen to a message that comes from the U.S.," he said. Given the often negative depiction of Muslims and Arabs in film and television, though, he is also skeptical that Hollywood can be a credible messenger.
Abrahms believes that it is more effective for the government to remind the public of the brutality of the Islamic State's behavior than to attempt to make the case that the group does not represent Islam.


"Honestly, I think that the best thing that governments can do in the area of propaganda is not to contradict the message of the terrorists but to elucidate the actual behavior of the terrorists," he said.


The U.S. lacks credibility among Muslims in the Middle East and well-produced propaganda is unlikely to change that.
"What matters in terms of how the Muslim world perceives the United States is not what the U.S. government says but what the United States actually does," he said.
"They are not going to afford any credibility to those that would be the source of the counter-narrative," Cohen said of those who gravitate toward ISIS.
According to Fidler, even with the help of Hollywood's finest, taking the fight to ISIS online might never accomplish what defeating them on the battlefield will.
"We're chasing all of these issues in cyberspace without, I don't think, having an adequate strategy for dealing with the real space problem," he said.

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