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?