The U.S. government is stepping up its efforts to combat the Islamic State’s well-oiled propaganda machine by retooling a small federal agency to strategically spread anti-jihadist material through social media channels. Since ISIS’ rapid rise to power in Syria and Iraq, commentators have fixated on the radical Islamists’ skilled manipulation of social media platforms to their own benefit. Through social media, ISIS has spread fear among the local communities, fostered an overblown sense of its capabilities and reach in the region, and recruited sympathetic Westerners to its cause. Now, armed with new resources and a redefined social media strategy, the U.S. aims to use the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications to counteract ISIS’ messaging and foreground authentic Muslim rejections of jihadist projects.
Started in 2011, the Center pulled together a small staff on a shoestring budget. But while its operations might appear small potatoes compared to the larger anti-ISIS military response, the center’s existence indicates the White House’s growing worries over the messaging war that ISIS appears to be winning.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that the Center would be deploying a new strategy by leveraging a network of networks to centralize, consolidate and distribute anti-ISIS messages from a variety of sources. Rather than simply rely on Twitter accounts directly related to U.S. federal government agencies — though more than 350 of the State Department accounts will be involved as well — the Center’s staff will also look to think tanks, big-name individuals, and Muslim experts to provide content.
The White House faces an uphill battle, as the media’s extensive coverage of ISIS’ professional videos and viral Twitter activity demonstrates. As one U.S. official said, ISIS regularly sees more than 900,000 Tweets go out each day, either from official accounts or from fans and supporters that rely on its hashtags.
Simply put, the U.S. won’t be able to win based on volume. As Richard Stengel, the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, told The New York Times on Monday:
We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content.
When it comes down to messaging, the campaign that the Center has waged thus far doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction.
The “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign uses a variety of anti-ISIS messages, including images and stories of Western jihadists who regretted their decision to join ISIS and snarky comments about ISIS tweets. For example, one tweet from the @ThinkAgain__DOS account notes, “ISIS’s next mission — Kill Christmas; fighters in Libya burn small Santa figurines instead of aiding poor, hungry.” It also includes a photo of small Santa figures burning.
It seems unlikely that the U.S. State Department account will have street cred with the audience it is trying to reach. As a 2012 study in Middle East Journal noted, only 4 percent of the Think Again Turn Away Tweets had generated positive reactions on the social media site. Instead, many ISIS accounts and supporters warn their followers away from suspect U.S. government accounts.
But some worry that the strategy is more than simply misguided. As Shahed Amanullah, a former State Department employee who worked on promoting anti-extremist Muslim voices noted, the Center’s project of counteracting ISIS’ messaging through government accounts might be helping the jihadists more than hurting them. Amanullah told The Guardian:
There’s nothing these people like more than to see the US government specifically acknowledging and interacting with them online. They turn right around to their followers and say, ‘See? We’re every bit as powerful as we say we are, the US government is proof.’
ISIS might have an intimidatingly effective social media presence, but those tweets don’t translate directly into its military capabilities on the ground. In fact, the Western media’s focus on ISIS’ cinematic videos might be fueling an exaggerated sense of the group’s power in a region that remains highly precarious and contested by a number of different Islamist factions, including al-Nusra. Research associate Emerson Brooking wrote for the Center for Foreign Relations:
It will be a significant point to remember, as Western fears of IS continue to grow, that the Islamic State’s terrifying online presence is not matched by its actual capabilities. IS remains beset on every front…In many cases, the Islamic State’s message has resonated so strongly not because of its actual power and prestige, but rather because of its smart use of the social media loudspeaker.
Rather than giving each and every ISIS Twitter sally a legitimate platform, perhaps the best way to combat the dominant image that the jihadist group is trying to portray is to treat the group’s social media messages as if they didn’t matter to the U.S. government one bit.
But U.S. officials working on developing the counter-ISIS media strategy remain hopeful that the strategy will forestall the recruitment of new jihadists from Western societies.
“These guys aren’t BuzzFeed; they’re not invincible in social media,” Stengel said.
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