A Modest Proposal: Create Snapchat Counterinsurgence

  • by November 19, 2015

Face it: The news about ISIS has gone from grim to grimmer. Many of us are feeling helpless. But shortly after the murderous Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the massacre in Paris last week, adman Jerry Della Femina, author of the comedic bestseller,  “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor,” wrote a newspaper column, an impassioned screed, about how to vanquish ISIS in 20 days. The title? “We Must Declare War.”

Della Femina still knows how to get attention. His Obama-bashing aside, his exhortation to war was skillful, positively Hearstian in its seductive punch, the copy a modern equivalent of the “Uncle Sam wants you!” poster.

 “Imagine an army with soldiers from the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Russia, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Greece, Turkey and New Zealand,” Della Femina wrote. “Imagine an army of half a million soldiers armed with the best weapons and equipment, backed by a sky full of planes, versus ISIS, which has an estimated 31,000 to 50,000 men…”



Certainly, he’s not the only one to call for a conventional ground war — with bombs, blood, and boots on the ground — or even a nuclear reaction, in response to these horrific acts. France has called a state of emergency for three months, and has already responded with air strikes in Syria, with the help of the U.S. (Canada under Trudeau has already pulled out.) Obviously, the idea of building a worldwide coalition to fight terrorists, and figuring out the weapons and military planning required, is a brain-buster way beyond my, and most peoples’, pay grades.

But that hasn’t stopped me, and everyone else, from venting about what happened in France on Facebook, or wrapping our profile pictures in the French flag. I found the link to Jerry’s piece on my FB feed.

So I do have a very tiny and modest proposal: One thing Della Femina never mentioned is that this is the first-ever war already being waged on a digital battlefield. Of course, there’s an incredible contradiction and irony in the fact that a terrorist religious group that vows to bring the world back to the 7th century — or an apocalypse — has been nothing short of genius in its use of social media.

Here’s where the ad community could be of service. How about creating a digital army dedicated to creating content to counter the group’s massive, global, social media efficiency?  The goal would be saturate the Internet with alternative information for the millennial Muslims who are being casually recruited every day on Instagram, Snapchat, and any number of other online platforms.  

Reps from ISIS are having conversations out in the open and in real time, part of a sophisticated  system of making casual contact with civilian kids that starts the process of what has been called “a conveyor belt to radicalization.”

The bigger picture is that they are offering young men all over the world with no real prospects a house, a wife, and most importantly, a life’s calling. They have also been successful in recruiting young women, essentially middle-class school children, to the religious cause.  They’ve also been able to reach otherwise socially isolated, segregated Muslim women who have become online recruiters.

We could start with counterarguments from people who are their peers, who have been there. One former ISIS prisoner recently wrote in The Guardian,  “They present themselves to the public as superheroes, but away from the camera are a bit pathetic in many ways: street kids drunk on ideology and power.” Women could talk about how they and other young girls were actually treated. Others could discuss how ISIS gets its money.

It sounds naïve, but these nuanced messages are a world away from selling “Brand America” via conventional advertising. Former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Charlotte Beers was conscripted to do this for the State Department shortly after 9/11, and the result was a disaster that was actually ridiculed by its intended audience.

But it seems as if the State Department has learned something in the interim. Pete Favat, now chief creative officer, North America, at Deutsch, who previously worked on the "Truth" anti-smoking campaign when he was at Arnold, recently published a piece about being asked by the State Department to speak to a conference at West Point. He was recruited to talk about the correlation between the "Truth" campaign’s ability to combat smoking among the young’uns and the fight against ISIS recruitment of young soldiers.

"One of the undeniable reasons why 'Truth' was effective is simple,” he told me.  “It felt genuine in that it was young people speaking to young people. It was their voice, and it was as intelligent as them. It didn't mimic them, or talk down to them. It was them."

Creating this kind of content, in words or video, would be in concert with the complex work of hacker groups like Anonymous — which, according to a report in Foreign Policy, has had success bringing down 149 websites, shutting more than 5,000 Twitter accounts and reporting a further 5,000 propaganda videos. The difficult, highly complex world of encryption is another front on which to battle.

The content part isn’t easy, but it’s far simpler, for starters, than hacking and anti-encryption work. I’m talking about creating content that can break the enormous psychological momentum that ISIS has built. And, of course, there’s no one message. There have to be thousands of messages.  

Radicalization becomes a lot more toxic in a closed echo chamber. We have power in the online space.  ISIS is already ahead of the game, and will always be nimble and able to adapt. While deliberations continue, there is one source of hope. To amend what Jerry said, We Must Declare War — online.  How about it?

20 comments about "A Modest Proposal: Create Snapchat Counterinsurgence".
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  1. Jeff Sawyer from GH, November 19, 2015 at 12:50 p.m.

    Maybe don't call them terrorists, for starters. Call them The Afflicted. And tell youth it's a form of mental illness, one to be avoided.

    And give kids two words to say to anyone who asks them to strap on a bomb: You First.


  2. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, November 19, 2015 at 12:58 p.m.

    Great idea. I'm going to forward this to Senator Dianne Finestien. 

  3. Patrick Hirigoyen from The Hirigoyen Group LLC, November 19, 2015 at 1:03 p.m.

    Della Famina's prescription for a ground war is absolutely stupid. Was he comatose from 2003-2009? Putting thousands of soldiers in that area would play right into the hands of ISIS and provide a great recruiting tool for terrorists, just like the Iraq War, Guantanamo, etc. This is why I dread the possibility that we might turn the White House over to the same gang that got us into the mess we were in post-9/11.

    There's a reason a WWII veteran -- a member of the "Greatest Generation" that Della Famina says he admires -- at the Normandy Beach commemoration went up to the President and told him, Thank you for not getting us in another war. Because although the veteran's war was a clear-cut, conventional defense of our country against massed armies, Iraq was a "stupid war," and a ground campaign against ISIS would just continue the stupidity.

    But Lippert's idea for an information "war" is spot-on, and the administration should (if it's not already) pursue such a strategy (and yes, not the ham-handed efforts of the Bush administration, but a campaign that understands social media - and Lord knows, the Obama administration understands it). This should be part of the "allied" effort to involve many countries in the fight against ISIS.

  4. Becky Ebenkamp from Idsville, November 19, 2015 at 1:20 p.m.

    For a second there I worried you were going to take inspiration for your headline and instruct us to eat Jerry Della Femina! Your perceptions are right on the money, Barbara. The tools change but no matter how you slice it, it's still all about the marketing.

  5. Jim English from The Met Museum, November 19, 2015 at 1:46 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara, the good guys in social media have got to step forward.  Your distinguished readers will make a difference in the social media war. And perhaps make a difference in how we all feel.  I remember your comments on advertising impact affecting the national mood after 9/11 (specific then to TV ads), "As every bit of research since September 11 has proved, Americans like seeing commercials, and in some strange way, are even comforted by them during tough times."

  6. George Parker from Parker Consultants, November 19, 2015 at 3:10 p.m.

    For all those screaming for "boots on the ground," tell them to reintroduce the draft... With NO exceptions, particularly for the children of politicians!

  7. Don Perman from self, November 19, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

    Great column, bringing in so many elements.  If ISIS can sway people to follow with their hype, perhaps we really could counter it.  Unless they already hate us so much that it's already game-over.  Who knows? Maybe the French with their media flair and passion for showcasing ads can lead the way here.

  8. Benny Thomas from Rise&Shine&Partners, November 19, 2015 at 3:40 p.m.

    Barbara this is absolutely fantastic and so much more practical than the warmongers with their excessive testosterone. I for onewould raise my hand to be part of this digital war. It's cheaper ( in terms of money, lives and human suffering) and it works. It works. 
    Who's with me? 

  9. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, November 19, 2015 at 3:44 p.m.

    Wow. Until I read "We must declare war," I had no idea that Jerry Della Femina was a raving lunatic. That aside, the technical and media war that can and should be waged is a winnable proposition. The expertise that now goes into data tracking and analysis can surely go into proper targeting, and the messages are available and ready made. Each act of barbarism and terrorism yields more powerful stories of human beings caring for each other and lifting each other. In the end, there can be only one winning story in this.

  10. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 19, 2015 at 5:06 p.m.

    What I find so distressing about all of this back and forth is the lack of a discussion of the underlying basis for this 'war" we are now engaged in. Yes, we all know about the U.S. support for Israel as one element and, of course, there is the West's dependence on oil, past transgressions by the European colonial powers, etc. etc. however if we step back and look at things from an historical perspective, it seems clear to me that many muslim clerics have become increasingly fearful over the past 30 years of losing their ability to control their brainwashed followers thanks to Western intrusions and, in particular, the media---movies, TV shows, the Internet, etc. which---even if painting an often distorted picture---show what life can be like as an alternative to constant praying and the total subjugation of women. Imagine what the mullahs were feeling in Afghanistan or Iraq when their female slaves watched American women soldiers---even officers ( gasp! ) ---marching and fighting alongside the men.

    So, what we seem to have is a war against Western values and encroachment fueled by many muslim clerics who could, if they chose to, really clamp down on the Jihadists' credo---as some brave ones have done. Unfortunately, many muslims openly or passively support the jihadists and it is well known that they are funded by contributions by many Saudis who feel that their way of life is threatened by the West.

    How does one deal with this situation? For one thing, there is the issue of continuity of purpose and staying power. Where the jihadists are in it for the long haul, their obvious goal being to create an Islamic super state which controls most of the world's oil, we change policies every four to eight years as one party comes into power, then gets kicked out by the otherin which case the former's policies are totally abandoned. That's no way to win a long, drawn out war.

    I don't have any easy answers, but once a raging fire is allowed to flame up, as now seems to be the case, it is best to take some concrete action to put it out quickly and I believe that, however reluctant we might be, it is America's role to lead the way, even if this means joining with France, Egypt, the Saudis, Turks, Brits, etc. in a joint military operation involving ground troops---but not with us supplying 90% of the troops and doing all of the heavy lifting, as in the past. Indeed, we should send only enough troops to stiffen the resolve of our "allies", who would provide most of the man power and do most of the fighting as well as staying in place, once ISIS and the Al Nusra Front were eradicated. Then there's the problem of other infestations---Nigeria, Yemen, etc. which also need serious attention, using the same approach.

    As for solving the underlying problem---the clerics' control over their subjects---I don't really know. Perhaps fair treatment of their people might be a good start.

  11. Chuck Lantz from, network, November 19, 2015 at 5:06 p.m.

    This is great stuff.  Since shortly after 9/11 I've been driving friends and relatives crazy by floating the idea that, since these shooters and bombers have been talked-into their actions with words, words can be used to talk them back out of it. But the words must come from respected peers and clerics, the more - and the louder - the better. 

    But any such effort must NOT be connected, in any way, with any single "side."  It must be, in every way, a grass-roots, unaffiliated effort.  If not, countering it would be simple for the extremist recruiters.

     It certainly won't be easy, and it won't reach all of them, but convincing even a few that they've been deceived is worth the effort.  In short, I think Barbara Lippert's plan would work.

  12. George Parker from Parker Consultants, November 19, 2015 at 5:57 p.m.

    Barbara: Never forget, Jerry is a decorated WWII veteran as is spelled out in his memoir... “From Those Wonderful Folk Who Brought us Pearl Harbor.”Which describes how he went underground at Ted Bates to destroy a bastion of American decadance. When it comes to fighting terrorism and running restaurants, my money's on Jerry. Cheers/George "AdScam Parker

  13. lisa shawn from self-employed, November 19, 2015 at 6:24 p.m.

    Superb and smart piece.  Given how critical social media has been in recruiting for ISIS, it only makes sense to use it in equal or greater measure to deflate and disempower it.  I hope someone takes heed of this, and leads the charge to mobilize those who would be most appropriate for this clever and deceptively powerful strategy.

  14. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 20, 2015 at 9:55 a.m.

    ISIS uses the same two themes -- fear and envy -- to sell themselves to malleable lost souls that Madison Avenue uses to sell everything to everybody.

  15. Jane Farrell from Freelance, November 20, 2015 at 11:36 a.m.

    A great idea and a great column. It is a long-term effort requiring literally hourly commitment, but we are in this anti-terrorism effort for the long haul.

  16. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, November 20, 2015 at 4:59 p.m.

    My facebook friend, Barbara Lippert you give me food for thought although I am no expert in the effect of adverising. Above my pay grade in this field but seems to make a lot of common sense if,indeed ISIL has such a powerful affect in social media.
    One thing I do believe that your point vis-a-vis some masive ground war.I could not care less if Mr. Della femina is a decorated soldier. These are different times without a draft which would ensure the  poor kids from all those named countries would do the fighting,dying, and suffer life altering wounds..So, after spending 20 seconds deleting your employer's notices to my inbox, your piece was well worth that effort.

  17. larry towers from nyu replied, November 20, 2015 at 5:09 p.m.

    "even if this means joining with France, Egypt, the Saudis, Turks, Brits, etc. in a joint military operation involving ground troops--"

    When will people EVER learn? This is quite frankly wrong. What are we trying to acomplish here? To stop terrorism? Well then no this won't work. Even if we got all the worlds armies together and wiped ISIS from the middle east the TERRORISM WOULD GO ON!!!! The idea of violence aginst the west will survive well beyond any such vanquishment. The terrorists and their sympathizers are all over the world. The only way to fight terrorism is to deal with the legitimate issues underlying the rage.

  18. larry towers from nyu, November 20, 2015 at 5:15 p.m.

    Quite frankly Ithink it is time for censorship. Social Medai outlets have no constitutional mandate for absolutely free communication. Why can't they simply not provide a platform for terrorists? They should provide a feedback mechanism for every posting and allow the public to flag terrorist propaganda for removal.

  19. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 20, 2015 at 7:40 p.m.

    Yep, Larry. While the fire is raging and the "enemy" is rapidly expanding, why fight, right? Let's start by dealing with the underlying problem. You betcha! Only by the time "we" figure out how to do that, you and millions of others may be dead. Terrorism is merely a tactic, it's not the enemy. This isn't a war against terror. We have real and dedicated enemies and until we deal with the immediate problem, we can't hope to start to work on the real causes---which are a lot more complicated than many realize.

    I do like your second comment---about "censoring" social media--- however, instead of flagging "terrorist" propaganda for removal, I rather see the perpetrators hunted down and disposed of.

  20. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, November 29, 2015 at 4:38 p.m.

    I attended a goodbye yesterday for a young kid going off to join the Marines. He would presumably be part of any coalition going in to destroy the latest Islamist move to establish a caliphate and bury Western and Eastern and Northern and Southern civilizations once and for all. He would agree with a lot of what Jerry said and almost all of what Barbara said. I used to think military service was a sine qua non of the Presidency, but perhaps that is a little extreme. I have to say, though, that I admire this kid a lot more than if he had been accepted at Yale orPrinceton.

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