The new podcast Caliphate, and what it says about digital media
I've been devouring the new podcast from the New York Times, Caliphate, which follows Rukmini Callimachi in her reporting on ISIS. As she weaves deeper into the web that is the Islamic State, trying to understand the network by asking, "who is it we're really fighting?" she sets the stage for a deeply cinematic and suspenseful story. But I'm not here to talk about the narrative structure or the sound design of the podcast; rather, I want to trace a thread of thought about digital media and marketing that's been hibernating in my brain for a while and that has emerged thanks to this podcast. Bear with me.
Caliphate is partly about how ISIS has mastered the technique of pulling young people into religious radicalism, told from the interviews with one Canadian young man who fell into it. Part of that technique involves defined recruitment strategies to pinpoint young Muslims in the West who are snooping around the internet, displaying some curiosity towards those psychological leanings and then capitalizing on those leanings to introduce jihad as the answer to a lot of life's unknowns. For young people (mostly men) who are feeling isolated and unanchored, getting recruited to join ISIS can feel like joining a club where you finally feel like you belong somewhere and where you can eliminate doubts for the sake of a cause, extremist as it is. And how do they locate those isolated young men? Chat rooms, YouTube videos, Twitter, Instagram. Places where these (probably) digital natives are congregating and poking around, looking for answers and being swayed by the certainty that these recruiters appear to offer.
While the psychological tactics involve what could be described as brainwashing, I find it fascinating that ISIS recruiters have effectively championed the tools of digital media to do their dirty work. Not unlike the subreddits like The_Donald--which congregates 450,000 Trump supporters from the corners of the internet, offers a breeding ground for the alt-right, and is composed of disillusioned, trolling white men--the internet and its endless variations of platforms, media, and online communities have given proto-ISIS recruits a place to validate their brewing, radical ideologies.
And yet we digital marketers use those same tools all the time to pinpoint target audiences and lead them on the customer journey. With the marketing funnel we attract-->consider-->convert-->delight buyers at various stages through the intent to purchase. We use sophisticated targeting algorithms on social media and track conversions through cookies to learn more and more about our customers (or listeners, or audiences, or fans). We follow them around the internet with retargeting, putting a metaphorical, digital bud in their ear that nags them to buy that thing. Now we obviously don't go as far as to brainwash buyers into eliminating all sense of doubt about whether the thing is the absolute, all-problem-solving thing they must have, but I wonder if there's a parallel story about identity formation we can tell here that ISIS has taken to an extreme.
Marketing has moved in the age of the internet from a mass-selling proposition to a niche one. If potential buyers can find you on the internet, your work is half done already. Depending on what you're offering, you don't have to rely on huge, outbound ad spend anymore to attract customers. Content marketing, especially, links your company's story to your customers' sense of identity--that you are telling them that in some way, you connect with them. Large or small scale, digital marketing has turned companies into fodder for personal branding. Influencer marketers, anyone? Exhibit A. Are people who espouse jihad on the internet just a twisted, radicalized version of an influencer marketer?
I don't know what to make of this. Maybe it's as simple as, the internet is both good and bad. Or maybe it's that we marketers should be very careful about how we approach audiences to avoid being creepy (if the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica reckoning didn't tell you that). But overall, I want to advocate that using digital media in your marketing strategy should give your consumers a chance to think for themselves and maintain doubt, understand that their identity is separate from yours, make informed decisions and purchases, and always give them the chance to say, I'm out, no questions asked. Otherwise we might turn into recruiters.
image credit: The New York Times.