Small Wars Journal

Applying Recent Lessons from Climate Change Communication to Counter-ISIS Strategic Communication

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 11:20am

Applying Recent Lessons from Climate Change Communication to Counter-ISIS Strategic Communication


Nicholas Mercurio


Terrorism is a sophisticated rhetorical act designed to communicate danger and inspire anxiety within a larger population.[1] It is inherently abstract; the attack is not the goal and the victims, except for instances of political assassination, are not the targets. Terrorism is executed through systematic campaigns that leverage narrative—discreet or continuous communication that defines the interests and relationships of individual and collective members of a group—and framing, or the socio-cultural context within which a narrative may be distilled, to inspire fear in pursuit of a political, economic or ideological goal.[2]  Once we accept the fundamentally communicative purpose of terrorism, it becomes clear that strategic communication should be the preeminent tool in the counter-terrorism toolbox. The trouble is, the U.S.-led approach to counter-ISIS strategic communication is hamstrung by reliance on a flawed paradigm that I call narrative jamming. The good news is that there is a potential solution and it comes from an unlikely place: recent research on climate change communication.


Narrative Jamming Paradigm and Cocreationality


Jamming refers to emitting or reflecting electromagnetic energy to deny someone the ability to effectively use the electromagnetic spectrum.[3]  By doing so, the ability to use communications equipment (ex. line-of-site radios; satellites and ground-station antennas) and position, navigation and timing devices (ex. Global Positioning System satellites and receivers) can be degraded or denied.[4]  Jamming can be achieved in several ways such as over-crowding frequencies or overpowering signals, a technique referred to as brute force jamming.  However, even the most sophisticated jamming techniques are typified by three characteristics.  First, they generally require more power (effort) than the targeted signals.  Second, the effects are temporary, disappearing after the jamming equipment is turned off.  Third, the effects are reversible because jamming an emitter or receiver does not result in permanent damage.  


In this context, the narrative jamming paradigm refers to the constellation of practices that operationalize concepts of physical jamming in the EM spectrum for SC.  An example would be attempts degrade an adversary narrative through counter-messaging, i.e. refuting claims within the target narrative to undermine its credibility.  Another application of the narrative jamming paradigm involves attempts to increase the salience of a counter-narrative by flooding the information environment (IE) with references in the hope that they will overpower or drown out the target narrative.  It is this approach that is espoused in the Brookings Institute Center for Middle East Policy’s forum papers on combating ISIS propaganda, one of which is actually entitled “Volume to match volume.”[5]


The problem with narrative jamming is that it is regards target audiences and stakeholders as static entities that can be manipulated to achieve desired ends. Alternatively, the cocreational model communication recognizes that audiences and stakeholders do not simply receive communication as if they are empty vessels.  Instead, when receiving a message, the way audiences and stakeholders perceive the world—informed by their past experiences and thoughts of the future, as well as by their perception of, and continual relationship with, the message originator—dictates that they will derive, or cocreate, their own meaning of the message.[6]   In addition to the individual meanings cocreated from a single message, interpretive communities are formed that generate an evolving, collective understanding of a message, individual, organization, issue, or idea. 


The cocreational approach requires rigorous research to cultivate an understanding of audiences and stakeholders and develop an informed communications strategy.[7]   Narrative jamming also requires research to identify adversary message sources and channels and target desired signals. If this is done well, there can be some level of success.  Unfortunately, this is often not the case as noted in the following excerpt from a Quilliam Foundation strategic briefing on countering Islamist extremist narratives: “While over 50% of ISIS’s propaganda concern the ‘utopia’ narrative, existing counter-narratives focus on the ‘brutality’ aspect (which accounts for less than 5% of ISIS output), and there is little suggestion that this is likely to be effective to dissuade the target audience from extremism and terrorism.”[8] 


Even if informed by proper research, narrative jamming still suffers from the limitations imposed by its inherently short-lived and reversible effects, a reality that becomes more apparent after examining a phenomenon known as the continued influence effect.


Continued Influence Effect, Inoculation Theory and Lessons from Climate Change


The continued influence effect of misinformation describes how false claims enter memory and continue to influence beliefs even after they have been corrected.[9]  It results from the recurring psychological need for causal explanations for events in a story. Misinformation can only be corrected by replacing it with information that produces an alternative causal relationship.[10]  Narrative jamming by counter-messaging—identifying adversary messages as untruthful—produces a similar, temporary effect.  Audiences and stakeholders, after learning of false claims but lacking a credible alternative, will continue using the misinformation when making inferences and describing causality.


Here is a vignette of how this could play out: A family is found dead after an explosion.  ISIS claims it is due to a coalition airstrike.  The coalition refutes the claim, saying there were no airstrikes within 200 kilometers of that location.  Due to the continued influence effect of misinformation, civilians in the area later infer that coalition bombs killed the family.  In order to prevent civilians from referring back to ISIS-issued misinformation regarding the cause of the explosion, the coalition correction should have included additional information that offers a reasonable explanation for the explosion, such as “bomb-making supplies were known to be housed in this building.”  Thus, a more effective refutation would state, “The coalition was not responsible for the explosion. There were no coalition airstrikes within 200 kilometers of that location.  Sources have reported that bomb-making supplies were known to be housed in the building.”


Research on climate change misinformation and myth-debunking found that in a counter-messaging, facts and myths annihilate one another, leaving behind the target audience’s previous misconceptions.[11]  Ironically, when corrective evidence comes into direct conflict with an individual’s worldview, there is a backfire effect that strengthens the individual’s previously-held beliefs, further entrenching their misconceptions.[12]  This fact-myth cancellation is a cognitive manifestation of the reversibility aspect of narrative jamming. In order to defeat misinformation after it has been adopted, researchers concluded that a person must be presented with the following elements in this order: the fact; the myth identified as such; and the fallacy that led them astray in the first place.[13]  The difficulty of this process creates a demand-signal for a method to block misinformation before it is adopted as fact.


Attempts to neutralize misinformation before it is adopted are colloquially known as ‘prebunking.’[14] Using the communication discipline’s inoculation theory, researchers demonstrated that people can be protected against misinformation regarding climate change by being exposed to a refuted version of the message beforehand.[15]  The process is similar to the way in which a vaccine prompts the immune system to generate antibodies resulting in future resistance to a virus.  An inoculation consists of two elements: (1) an explicit warning of an impending threat [the existence of attempts to mislead] and (2) a discredited form of the anticipated argument that exposes the impending fallacy.[16]  Inoculation research reveals that “inoculation has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of conspiracy theories by increasing the degree of skepticism regarding conspiratorial claims.”[17]  In the context of climate change, researchers found that people exposed to information that 97 percent of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change and misinformation casting doubt on the consensus experienced no significant change in attitudes related to climate change acceptance.[18]  However, when an inoculation was applied there was net-positive shift in climate change acceptance that “reduced the polarizing effect of misinformation” and “boosted strategic monitoring.”[19]


Connecting Climate Change to Violent Extremism


The climate change debate is no longer a scientific one—positions for or against are no longer informed by evidence and instead have been usurped by political ideology.[20]  For example, climate change denialists overwhelmingly espouse a free market economy.  For them, acknowledging climate change’s existence and accepting the prescribed solutions would entail adopting a host of behavioral changes incompatible with that worldview.  Occasionally, their views are so extreme that they appear immune to logic and even devolve into fanaticism. 


Framing the climate change debate as an ideological struggle provides relevance (though admittedly not equivalency) to the counter-ISIS strategic communications discussion.  For ISIS supporters, their fundamental interpretation of the original source texts of Islam results in a dystopian vision of a caliphate operating under seventh century Sharia law that is historically resistant to counter-messaging attempts.  If strategic communications planners can cultivate a holistic understanding of ISIS, they may be able to extrapolate and employ the aforementioned climate change inoculation and misinformation-correction techniques against them.


Understanding ISIS


ISIS follows a distinctive form of Islam derived from a particular reading of Sunni texts (the Hadith) and the Koran yielding beliefs about the path to judgment day that in turn informs its strategy.[21]  ISIS is dissimilar from other jihadists groups because it believes it is written into God’s script as a central character, its supporters destined to fight, and die, in blood-soaked apocalyptic battles exemplifying the ultimate struggle of good versus evil.  Central to ISIS’s existence is the caliphate, which requires two things; territory under ISIS control and a caliph.[22]  Furthermore, ISIS views Shiism as innovation which is equivalent to denying God’s perfection; this means that the 200 million Shia Muslims around the world, as well as every Muslim head of state (because elections suggest man as possessing authority above God), are marked for death alongside every infidel, or non-Muslim.[23] 


Such a nihilistic worldview, while difficult for a Western strategic communications planner to comprehend, also distracts from the center of gravity inherent to the ISIS narrative: the authority of the caliph relies on the application of Sharia law in ISIS-controlled territory.  Everything ISIS does or says is designed to legitimize and sustain the caliphate.  This includes radicalizing and recruiting foreign (non-Iraqi or Syrian) fighters because, in theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the caliphate.  Armed with this understanding, and with the previously discussed lessons from the narrative jamming paradigm and climate change communication, I think the U.S.-led coalition can course-correct its strategic communications efforts and create a new framework for counter-ISIS strategic communications.


The Way Ahead


At a minimum this framework must abandon the counter-messaging tactics of the narrative jamming paradigm and should instead be informed by a cocreational approach—it should be audience-centered with multiple lines of effort oriented toward key audiences and stakeholders.  These key audiences include: Sunni Muslim opinion leaders; moderate Sunni Muslims abroad; Shia Muslims; Western Muslim communities; Iraqi and Syrian refugee enclaves; vulnerable youth populations (i.e. youth who exhibit some or all of the characteristics of the tetrad of radicalization susceptibility: disenchanted, disillusioned, disenfranchised and naïve); Western media; Muslim media; and Middle East heads of state.


Additionally, an effective framework should employ the following guiding heuristics of effective change communication: (1) simple, clear messages repeated often by a variety of trusted voices; and (2) make the desired behavior (at least appear) easy, fun and popular.[24]  


Finally, this framework should include efforts to erode the legitimacy of the caliphate, both from a territorial perspective—where the coalition has already demonstrated aptitude—and from an identity-creation perspective, eliminating the appeal of the ISIS narrative while offering a desirable alternative narrative. 


With regard to the preceding points, the Population Media Center (PMC), which utilizes a highly effective model to produce education entertainment for radio and television leading to demonstrated behavioral changes in more than 50 countries, can help. In Ethiopia, for example, 40 million people—half the population—tune in to the weekly Population Media Center radio soap opera broadcast that promotes health behaviors. [25]   That is remarkable reach. 


The model they use, highlighted by entertaining story lines that take place over 18 to 24 months and leveraging transitional characters struggling with issues for target audiences to identify with, can and should be used in a countering-extremism context.[26]  As such I think PMC is uniquely positioned to provide the necessary evidence-based expertise capable of producing outcomes in the IE to match the successes the coalition has been experiencing in the physical domain.


The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.


End Notes

[1] Botan, Strategic Communication Theory and Practice: The Cocreational Model.

[2] Botan.

[3] U.S. Department of Defense, “Joint Doctrine for Electronic Warfare.”

[4] U.S. Department of Defense.

[5] Fernandez, “Here to Stay and Growing.”

[6] Botan, Strategic Communication Theory and Practice: The Cocreational Model.

[7] Botan.

[8] Russell and Rafiq, “Countering Islamist Extremist Narratives.”

[9] Seifert, “The Continued Influence of Misinformation in Memory.”

[10] Seifert.

[11] Lewandowsky et al., “Misinformation and Its Correction.”

[12] van der Linden et al., “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change.”

[13] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker, “Neutralizing Misinformation through Inoculation.”

[14] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker.

[15] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker.

[16] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker.

[17] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker.

[18] van der Linden et al., “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change.”

[19] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker, “Neutralizing Misinformation through Inoculation.”

[20] Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker.

[21] Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

[22] Wood.

[23] Wood.

[24] Maibach, “Increasing Public Awareness and Facilitating Behavior Change: Two Guiding Heuristics.”

[25] “PMC Impact.”

[26] “Theory of Change.”




Botan, Carl H. Strategic Communication Theory and Practice: The Cocreational Model. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2018.


Cook, John, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Ullrich K. H. Ecker. “Neutralizing Misinformation through Inoculation: Exposing Misleading Argumentation Techniques Reduces Their Influence.” PLOS ONE 12, no. 5 (May 5, 2017): e0175799.


Fernandez, Alberto M. “Here to Stay and Growing: Combating ISIS Propaganda Networks.” The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, 2015.


Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13, no. 3 (December 1, 2012): 106–31.


Linden, Sander van der, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, and Edward Maibach. “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change.” Global Challenges 1, no. 2 (February 1, 2017): n/a-n/a.


Maibach, Edward W. “Increasing Public Awareness and Facilitating Behavior Change: Two Guiding Heuristics.” In Climate Change and Biodiversity, edited by Lee Hannah and Tom Lovejoy. Yale University Press, In press.


“PMC Impact.” Population Media Center. Accessed September 6, 2018.


Russell, Jonathan, and Haras Rafiq. “Countering Islamist Extremist Narratives: A Strategic Briefing.” Quilliam Foundation, 2016.


Seifert, Colleen M. “The Continued Influence of Misinformation in Memory: What Makes a Correction Effective?” In Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 41:265–92. Academic Press, 2002.


“Theory of Change.” Population Media Center. Accessed September 9, 2018.

U.S. Department of Defense. “Joint Doctrine for Electronic Warfare.” Joint Publication 3-51, 2000.


Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic, March 2015.



About the Author(s)

Major Nicholas Mercurio, USAF, is an active duty Public Affairs Officer currently assigned as an Air Force Institute of Technology graduate student at George Mason University pursuing a master’s degree in strategic communication.  He was awarded the 2017-2018  Lt. Col. William Schroeder Memorial Award for Excellence in Strategic Communication by the George Mason University College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Prior to this assignment he was Director, 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic) and Joint Functional Component Command for Space Public Affairs.