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How terrorist organisations beat governments in the battle for young minds

Governments treat the youth as one large group and their communication falters as a result

Raghu Raman  |  New Delhi 

Female Pakistani police officers stand guard outside a train decorated with pictures of slain Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani for the upcoming Independence Day in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Female Pakistani police officers stand guard outside a train decorated with pictures of slain Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Which detergent washes better? One from a blue box, yellow box or a red box? Turns out, most people think it is the one in a blue box?—?even if all the three boxes have exactly the same detergent. What is a reasonable price for a bottle of wine?—?$10, $18 or $27? Again turns out that most people choose the middle price with no regard to the taste. Interestingly even if all the three prices were increased by say $10, most customers still choose the middle one which will now cost $28.
Research has shown that when asked to estimate the number of marbles inside a jar, people are influenced by the metaphors they are exposed to?—?before the test. So if a word-matching quiz was given to two groups of people and one group got words like gigantic, juggernaut, massive, superstructure, skyscraper and light year and the other group got words like?—?minute, infinitesimal, tiny, microscopic, bacteria, atomic etc. then the first group estimates the number of marbles adventurously and the second group estimates very conservatively.

Marketers, social scientists, psychologists and insightful people have long known and leveraged the power of the subliminal or the unconscious mind. Most of us know, that our brains handle tasks in two different ways. Routine tasks such as getting dressed, driving, crossing the road while talking on the phone, are all handled by the unconscious brain while tasks that require deeper calculations, weighing pros and cons of complex issues or assessing long term implications of a decision?—?are handled by the thinking brain. But what we don’t realize is that our unconscious mind overwhelmingly our conscious decisions. What we believe to be a rationale conclusion?—?is more often?—?not really rational. Matter of fact, awareness and education is overrated. Here is an example that you can probably relate with.
Most of us have been educated on the importance of wearing seat belts. We have been exposed to warnings, posters, films that show what happens to crash test dummies and even punitive measures like fines etc. and yet, a $10 diode which beeps incessantly until the seat belt is worn?—?is exponentially more effective in achieving compliance. Attacking our unconscious mind is a far more effective way of persuasion or compellence than mass of information addressed to our conscious (and cluttered) mind.
And this fact is not just leveraged by retailers and salespersons, but also by terror organisations!
There is a belief that terrorists & especially suicide bombers are radicalised with to participate in one way missions. Going by the endless supply of human bombs, it seems that their program is working well. But religious fervour is not the only ingredient used for radicalisation. Analysis of terror recruitment videos shows that there is deep design thinking and subliminal communication addressed to the unconscious mind to bypass the rational mind of potential recruits.
The contemporary films are shot in high definition with multiple camera angles. Their story lines and scenes are not just inspired by bestselling video games, but are often copied from them, frame by frame. Such games?—?especially the first person shooter variety (like ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’) are basically killing sprees in which the gamer virtually slaughters his way to victory & more importantly, cult hero status. Interestingly, many of the characters the player has to kill, are policemen and innocent bystanders. These games are produced with multi-million dollar budgets and their developer teams include design thinkers, psychologists, behaviour and addiction specialists?—?whose primary aim is to make the game psychologically rewarding, to the point of ignoring rational thinking or in some cases, even primal needs like food and rest.
By copying such games and films, terror groups leverage elements of design and subliminal communication to convert recruits into seemingly mindless zombies. A particularly macabre recruitment film shows children being trained in military operations running around firing their weapons amongst archaeological ruins, eerily reminiscent of the blockbuster ‘Hunger Games’. It is indeed an irony that ISIS has been able to recruit thousands of fighters from over 100 countries by selling back western pop culture to their target audience rather than Islamic ideology.
Asymmetric warriors?—?which includes terrorists?—?have always mastered technology, innovation and ‘out of the box’ thinking, ahead of government establishments, which by definition are slow, cumbersome and archaic in their thought process and agility.
For instance market segmentation experts classify children between 10 to 12 as ‘tweens’; 13–15 as pre-teens; 16–17 as teenagers and 18–19 as young adults. They need to do that because each of these micro segments thinks differently, has different psychological motivators and even inhabit different social media platforms. The tweens don’t use the same social media platforms as the teenagers and the way they absorb information is very different from young adults.
On the other hand, the government treats the entire populace in the age group 15 to 29 as ‘youth’ and addresses communication to them in a clunky chunk which is ‘one size designed to fit none’. That is a bit like throwing lumps of clay at a wall and hoping some of it will stick, compared to the rapier sharp targeted communication strategy of the terrorists. And given that communication is an essential pivot in the battle against terrorism, they are running circles around the establishment.
The answer is not to hire some advertising agency or social media ‘experts’ and hope that throwing their bandwidth into the cauldron of counter efforts will solve the problem. That is tactical knee-jerking. Instead, the government and its establishments must appreciate that the battlefields are changing and there is no way they can keep up with all the developments in any reasonable real timeframe. The strategic approach would be to build capabilities within the relevant ministries that allows government to leverage capacity, instead of constantly trying to ‘buy’ or grow that capacity in house. But to be able to do that, leaders at strategic levels must be educated on new age disciplines like design thinking, shaping behaviour, connected intelligence and subliminal communication. Else they will continue to throw lumps of clay and wonder why none of it is sticking.
The author is a former soldier & the founder CEO of NATGRID. He tweets @captraman and all views are personal.
This article was first published on his medium page

First Published: Thu, June 15 2017. 13:12 IST