Digital warfare: RNS and PBS report anti-jihadi campaigns on social media

The real battlefront against ISIS and other terrorists isn’t the Middle East. It's on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media -- where jihadis are made and recruited. And two articles this week tell of a corps of new warriors familiar with the terrain.

The Religion News Service yesterday told how a West Point team won second place in a contest for most effective online presence against radical Islamist influences. The so-called Peer to Peer (P2P) competition, sponsored by Homeland Security, involved teams from several nations -- including one from a Pakistani college, which took first place.

Each team got $2,000 to spend on their entries, and they used the cash shrewdly, according to RNS:

The cadets, who used most of their cash on website development, said they had wondered how their project — designed to appeal to young people who might sympathize with terrorism — would fare in a contest co-sponsored by Homeland Security. They used the same hashtags often deployed by the Islamic State group on Twitter — #Syria, #IslamicState and #ParisAttacks — to give but a few examples.
And they would anonymously insert themselves into online spaces that had little to do with terrorism, but where a lonely young person vulnerable to extremists might virtually hang out. “Our campaign uses the same strategies to compete for the same audience that the Islamic State is reaching out for,” said Cadet David Weinmann.

They wisely posted in Arabic and on Fridays, knowing many Muslims go online after weekly prayers at mosques. And the "consulted with psychologists to learn how certain colors on their website could evoke certain emotions in users — green because of its association with Islam, and black because terrorists tend to like it," RNS says.

RNS is less specific about the content the team loaded onto places like YouTube and Twitter, perhaps because it might have outed the project and killed it. The article also doesn't include URLs or screenshots of their work.

The report does say that the team never denounces jihad or warns about the dangers of ISIS. Instead, they try to start subtle conversations with youths who seem drawn to radicalism: "Once on the cadets’ social media platforms, users are gently pushed toward a website — now live but still developing — which features moderate Muslim voices talking about Islam as a religion of peace."

One topic I would have liked to read more was how the cadets started their project by interviewing Muslim fellow students "to deepen their knowledge of Islam." What did they ask? What surprised them? How did the answers help them tailor their approach?

Measuring success, of course, is hard. How do you count the people who didn’t join ISIS or shoot up public spaces? But RNS does second-best in counting hits: 900,000 users on Facebook in more than 25 countries in two months.

RNS even finds a touch of humor in how Twitter shut down the account after it received complaints (though it was restored after a phone call). It was "a sign the feed attracts people other than those who adamantly reject violent extremism," the report says.

As sharp as RNS was in spotting this story, it was a few days late: PBS Newshour reported it on Sunday.  The story, hosted by PBS' Bob Booker, broadens the scope to students and think tankers as well as West Point.

In some ways, PBS tells more crisply what the students are doing. It says the project aims not at hardcore radicals but at fence sitters, 18 to 40 years old, who may be vulnerable to the ISIS pitch. The cadets often use direct messaging to help them talk out their beliefs.

Booker even relates something that happened while he was at West Point:

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: During our visit, the cadets said they received a Facebook message from someone they believed to be in the Middle East. Senior CJ Drew was one of the first to read it.
CJ DREW: In this in this instance, we were reached out to by a person who had seen our page. And the first thing that came up to them was jihad.  And they looked like they were a fence-sitter or someone we consider to be vulnerable to targeting by ISIS, and they wanted more information and they wanted to engage us and tell us what jihad meant to them.

But the PBS report is less focused as it moves to the NYU project, dubbed “7 train stop” for a subway station in the ethnically diverse Queens borough. The supervisor, Professor Colette Mazzucelli, talks about the need to "integrate" immigrants into the "American narrative." But she doesn't say much about how it's done, except for providing a discussion website.

Roughly half the story, in fact, details the problem more than solutions. (Of course, the 1,700 transcript is much longer than the 1,000-word RNS piece.) One of the problems is that, according to Seamus Hughes of the State Department, American radicals gravitate toward "echo chamber" websites:

We look at about 300 accounts of Americans we believe to be ISIS supporters online, over a six-month period, and what we saw is they didn’t hear dissenting voices. They only heard what they wanted to hear. They were only pushing the propaganda that they believed in, so when you have people trying to interject themselves into the conversation, they were quickly pushed out.

If so, it suggests that nobody in West Point -- maybe no one in the P2P competition -- got to such people. PBS should asked about that.
Booker was alert enough mention the U.S.' previous "Think Again, Turn Away," campaign, an attempt to throw mud on ISIS through satire. Its coordinator, Alberto Fernandez, admits the campaign failed: "We were too extreme and too radical for government, but not extreme and radical enough for the challenge."

What's left? Still casting around, says Fernandez -- who has left the government for the Middle East Media Research Institute. He talks to PBS in terms of "turning the battleship around."

The main note of hope in both articles is apparently that a handful of dedicated young adults is taking new approaches in preventing people from going radical. My hope is that PBS and RNS keep on this story.


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