Can the U.S. government use social media to combat anti-social behavior? Can America win the online battle for the hearts and minds of potential terrorists?
In December 2013 The New York Times wrote about a fledgling State Department initiative in which a small band of analysts would use Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr to reach out to English-speakers at risk for joining groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
This pilot program by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications — dubbed "Think Again Turn Away" — would be conducted by the same small staff that routinely tangled online with pro-terrorism commenters in Arabic, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu — with no additional resources allocated.
Since its inception, the program has tweeted more than 1,500 times, averaging a handful a day. Now, according to Nextgov, the State Department is expanding the program by awarding a six-month contract to JTG Inc., a Virginia company specializing in intelligence, especially linguistic, analysis.
Whether this investment marks a sense of success surrounding the six-month-old program is hard to say, even for its leadership. "We don't give ourselves airs that we are a huge operation or that we are radically shifting sentiment," says CSCC's coordinator, Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. "But, at the very least, we are beginning to begin to present alternate points of view."
Fighting Images With Images
The new project raises the question of whether a government-sponsored social media effort will have greater success than similar U.S. programs in traditional media, such as Voice of America radio broadcasting and Alhurra, an Arabic-language satellite TV channel that reaches many countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
"Think Again Turn Away" posts rely heavily on images. These posts are meant as a direct counterpoint to the glorification of violence — and, as Fernandez describes it, "jihad porn" — that groups like al-Qaida are sharing on their own networks. The CSCC program often uses the same images the extremists originally shared.
"Is ISIS propaganda being talked about because it's slick and it's effective," Fernandez asks, "or is it being talked about because they captured these cities, did these spectacular things, slaughtered people and boasted about it?"
Fernandez rattles off a number of instances where extremist social media content was wrongly contextualized — earthquake victims in Pakistan passed off as drone victims, or American equipment in Afghanistan portrayed as Islamic State spoils. These falsities may have reached more people than CSCC's posts will, but the recent financial investment in a contractor underscores the government's commitment to pointing out hypocrisy in terrorist deeds.
"Our bread and butter is always the images, the words and deeds of the terrorists, the extremists themselves," Fernandez explains. But CSCC presents the content in such a way as to show how al-Qaida's actions are un-Islamic and hurtful to Muslims — two criticisms that it hopes will resonate with its target audience.
Using The Internet
The Internet is "incredibly important for the dissemination of [extremist] ideology," says Jytte Klausen, a professor of international cooperation in Brandeis University's politics department. She also founded the Western Jihadism Project, which describes itself as "a data collection and archive focused on Islamist extremist groups in the West" and which is currently funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to Klausen, the Internet is used to "prep" potential recruits by first getting them to accept an ideology, then implementing that ideology in their own lives.
Those who study this process of radicalization "have no way of measuring how many people sit at home and interact with these people online without moving out of their bedrooms," says Klausen. But for those who do take steps to establish in-person relationships with extremist groups, their radicalization can increasingly be traced back to the Internet.
Klausen calls "Think Again Turn Away" a low-cost strategy, but she emphasizes that ultimately religion and doctrine are not the primary reasons that people are joining up with the Islamic State and al-Qaida. She thinks that most of the people who become extremists are looking for excitement, thrill and a sense of community.
"It's difficult for the State Department to compete with that," Klausen concludes.
The CSCC says its staff is diverse and includes Muslims and non-Muslims with many years of experience in the region. The center is openly affiliated with the State Department and, as Fernandez says, largely "preaching to the converted." However, he takes hope that by sticking with the facts and disparaging acts of terrorism — rather than glorifying America — it has a chance of not being dismissed as mere Western propaganda.
To Fernandez, simply entering the dialogue is a victory in itself; but, with strong anti-American bias present among many in the target audience, he openly muses about combating the "noise" produced by social media — and, on a darker note, the "noise" of bold acts of violence.
"It's good to argue," says Fernandez. He likes a Winston Churchill quote about the value of rhetoric: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
If to tweet-tweet is the new rhetorical battleground of our age, then the U.S. is unwilling to be a mere spectator.
Daisy Alioto, formerly of NPR, is a news assistant at Law360.
The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj