What’s left of the propaganda powder keg?

In any move to war we get bludgeoned with the inevitable metaphors of motion. Whether it’s a strategic progression or headlong rush, a targeted advancement or mission creep, there is no turning back from the march of predictable language. Interestingly, in his seminal manual on how to hack our psyche’s mainframe Edward Bernays also captures the motion to emotions. If “the great enemy of any attempt to change men’s habits is inertia” it is propaganda that “makes things move.” Given this lexical kinship between war and the origin of public relations it’s surprising that the current battle of hearts, minds and -as of 10pm Wednesday- bombs against Isis has failed to gain much ground.

Much comes down to the failure of propaganda to counter Isis’s recruitment machine. The trouble is, we’re doing the wrong things well and the right things badly. As we saw this week the lobby for war has won a clear majority. Since the spectacular embarrassment of losing its first proposal of air strikes in Syria in 2013 (somewhat confusing against Assad who is now nominally on our side) Government communications have toed a clear line on the need to fight.

Ministries may be better briefed but this has failed to percolate to those at the receiving end of Isis’s poison. The problem with much counter-messaging is that it fails to demonstrate the fundamental point of propaganda. To return to Bernays, propaganda only really works when we receive it “without our realizing it.” Think of the savage beauty of Humphrey Jennings’s GPO documentaries that captured the Homefront of WW2. Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy remain masterpieces of the human spirit and rise above their immediate morale boosting function. To engage the audiences of today propaganda needs to be interactive not passive. The messages have to be discovered in the language, style and channels of digital natives. Glossy campaigns stamped all over with institutional approval may win awards but are unlikely to change minds.

Secondly, despite a declaration of war against Isis, it is not a conventional enemy and we cannot turn to past propaganda for models. For all its statehood pretentions, Isis is a scattered ideological movement that has galvanised the dregs of disparate jihadi movements across the Middle East and North Africa. Its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi –a former video store clerk in Jordon- created an idea defined by ramping up the ultra-violence to appeal to young men frustrated by the stultifying hierarchies of al-Qaeda.

Reading Dabiq, Isis’s official magazine, it is interesting to see how its editorial doesn’t see the global group as being against a concrete enemy (e.g. the USA or the West) but rather attacks the concept of nationalism itself. Isis feeds off the alienation that many disaffected young men and women feel towards an outdated notion of national belonging. The problem with David Cameron’s statements thus far is that he doesn’t provide a solution or positive call to action. Rather he draws on a sense of collective belonging –‘our struggle’ – that many simply don’t identify with.