Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays were masters at understanding how images and rhetoric could be manipulated in order to trigger certain psychological responses from the public. They perfected this craft over the course of World War I, while serving as advisers to President Wilson. Bernays served on the Committee for Public Information (Creel Committee), tasked with turning American public opinion towards military involvement in World War I. The strategy worked, and after the war Bernays took his talents to Madison Avenue where he became the “father of public relations.”
Bernays believed that people were innately stupid and could not be counted on to make rational decisions, instead ruled by their most base emotions. People could therefore be manipulated and controlled, not by the use of force, but by use of psychological triggers and the power of suggestion. Different approaches in advertising were designed to trigger within people different emotions that led them to purchase certain products, each according to the desire ignited by the public relations specialist. What Bernays accomplished in the private sector, Lippmann propagated and advanced in politics and the media. Lippmann called the public “the bewildered herd,” whose perceptions were to be shaped by propagandists, who create “pseudo-environments” of reality within the herd’s minds.
When attempting to understand al-Da’esh (the “Islamic State”), it seems apparent that those within the organization tasked with producing propaganda have perfected the methods and techniques first originated by men like Bernays and Lippmann. The rise of al-Da’esh was, in itself, a public relations coup engineered by both the group itself and oblivious media outlets serving as conduits of its propaganda.
Al-Da’esh’s propaganda is targeted towards a foreign and regional, rather than local, audience. Their regional PR efforts are tailored for recruiting, relying heavily on narratives about resisting a perverse and exploitative international order. Vis a vis the West, their primary target for terror is the minds of the public and its leaders, with an understanding that reactionary actions and policies will likely work to their advantage.
Through public statements, videos, religious sermons and public rallies, they exploit deep-seated fears and misconceptions about Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East. They do not shy away from the jingoist, some would say “Orientalized” images of themselves, since it’s these stereotypes that help them propagate their grandiose persona as the holy warriors, as the nightmare inside Western imaginations. They go out of their way to evoke xenophobic tropes about “sharia law,” especially with relation to intolerance, misogyny, extremism. They try hard to insinuate that virtually any Muslim could be sympathetic to their cause, plotting lone-wolf attacks against the West—that all Muslims (should) secretly want to conquer the world, overthrowing liberal systems and institutions.
Al-Da’esh utilizes the platforms available to them on social media, projecting their image and message to potential recruits and adversaries. The emphasis placed on the production value of their videos is one example; the well-regimented access they give to some, but not all, media outlets, is another. Their video production is well-polished and accompanied by soundtracks, good graphics and well-timed graphics. These manufactured images create “pseudo-environments” within the minds of the target audiences–instilling a foreboding feeling, a sense of inevitable conflict. Their prophecies of religious war can, therefore, become self-fulfilling.
Al-Da’esh knows how to play a good heel. It knows how to garner a negative reaction or draw heat from the crowd, while appearing completely confident and self-assured. These tactics, no doubt, well-learned during the Iraq War (2003-2010). It knows what its enemies fear and what drives American and Western military power. They are aware of the current debates about putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, the widespread aversion to expensive or protracted conflicts. Similar to the way that Osama Bin Laden wanted to draw the U.S. into Afghanistan through the attacks of 9/11, al-Da’esh seeks the same in Iraq and Syria. This may have been the purpose of the journalist beheadings back in August.
It is mind-baffling to see how Western governments and media, especially in the U.S., have almost on command played into this whirlpool of propaganda. Al-Da’esh created itself as an object of fear and angst–whether justified or not, whether truly a threat or not, they have pulled the U.S. back into Iraq. They seem to know exactly what button to push in order to garner the desired reaction from America and its leaders. The air is now rife with talk of sending more ground troops to Iraq, in addition to those already sent.
American civilian and military strategists should refrain from allowing the actions and self-created persona of the enemy from influencing how they perceive and confront the enemy. By calling al-Da’esh “Apocalyptic” in nature, officials play into the hands of their adversaries and allow them to dictate the nature of the conflict. Likewise when the public allows al-Da’esh to perpetuate Orientalist and irrational fears within their minds, they help enhance the enemy’s status as an archetypal adversary—elevating them into the sort of ideological construct which is much more difficult to definitively “defeat,” especially by military means.