Fake news and the two sides of the ‘digital caliphate’

2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 16

The Arab Weekly
James Snell

London - Despite ground losses in Iraq’s Mosul and Syr­ia’s Raqqa, the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to have a presence that incites or inspires online.

The impact of ISIS has not been limited to politics and the tra­ditional media. ISIS has created fake stories. When it wanted to at­tract a stream of foreign recruits, it made jihad look like a video game. When it was reasonably secure and self-confident, it por­trayed the caliphate as a pleasant, positive place, the sort of place one would want to defect to, somewhere one could bring the children.

Less well known is that other actors — governments, media organisations and individuals — have created a steady stream of false stories about ISIS.

Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London, said: “The fake news surrounding ISIS is obviously always intended to discredit it. Having realised that over-the-top violence is not really going to dis­credit ISIS with its audience, the new tactic came in presenting [ISIS] as cowardly or ridiculous so it’s running away from female Kurdish fighters and being killed by wild boars.”

This soothes Western audienc­es. Similar tactics were meant to deter potential recruits from join­ing ISIS. A US State Department programme called “Think Again, Turn Away” produced counter- ISIS propaganda but it did not seem to work and the programme was wound down.

Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said: “These fake stories are counter-effective because people who live under ISIS know they’re fake so it sends a message that there is a disinformation campaign against the group.”

He noted the trend has been prevalent for a long time. “A dec­ade ago, there were stories about how al-Qaeda in Iraq had a fatwa banning people from carrying cucumbers and tomatoes in the same bag because they symbolise sexuality and thus gender mix­ing,” Hassan said. “Since 2014, many such stories have been re­ported with little scrutiny. This is understandable — never check a good story — but also because ISIS is so bad anything isn’t beyond belief.”

David Patrikarakos, author of “War in 140 Characters: How So­cial Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century,” said digital attempts to discredit ISIS, especially by emphasising its bru­tality, can frequently backfire.

ISIS stories tend to go viral. “The problem arises because this was always the purpose of ISIS’s highly sophisticated propaganda output and the media in effect be­came spear carriers for the group, ensuring its content went global,” Patrikarakos said.

“ISIS is, as Abdel Bari Atwan has named it, the ‘digital cali­phate’ — if it had emerged 15 years ago it would have taken the group 20 years to reach a quarter of the people it has,” Patrikarakos said.

Thus, any attempt to defeat ISIS using online media, by giving emphasis to its savagery, plant­ing fake news or by talking up ISIS casualty figures could end up having the opposite effect.

James Snell is a British journalist.

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262


Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved