The State Department says it’s losing the information war to ISIS—and is tapping HBO, Snapchat, and a screenwriter with deep CIA connections to help turn things around.
The Obama administration is turning to HBO, Snapchat, and a controversial, Oscar-winning screenwriter to help them fight ISIS.
This year, the State Department convened a group of friends in the U.S. film industry, social media, and premium cable TV to brainstorm ways to counter jihadist propaganda.
In June, State Department officials and counterterrorism advisors traveled to Sunnylands (nicknamed the “Camp David of the West,” due to its history of being a super-exclusive vacation spot for celebrities and politicians) in Rancho Mirage, California, for a summit on how to effectively fight a propaganda and media war against extremist networks abroad. ISIS, for instance, has already mastered the art of ripping off Hollywood techniques to make recruiting and propaganda films, and basically has its ownTwitter army. The June meetings were essentially a sequel to a three-day summit convened by the White House in February on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) through community-based strategies.
Industry and government sources tell The Daily Beast that attendees included Mark Boal (Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), and executives from HBO, Snapchat, and Middle Eastern broadcaster MBC. (Earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed the idea of banning Snapchat out of fear that terrorists send encrypted communications via the video messaging service.)
Boal’s participation, especially, seems like a perfect fit. Zero Dark Thirty, the 2012 Oscar-bait that dramatized the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, was made with the help of the CIA and its press office—some would say too much help. The film is packed with falsehoods that push the CIA’s thoroughly debunked narrative that torture is what got Bin Laden. Additionally, Boal and ZDT director Kathryn Bigelow fêted CIA officers with gifts like tequila and pearls as they were offered unprecedented access to information on the OBL mission. (The female officer who partly inspired the movie’s main character said she had “developed a friendship” with the pair.)
And now he could be moving on to the State Department, presumably for less controversial, revisionist fare.
“U.S. filmmakers and social-media folks met with a bunch of international and regional filmmakers and broadcasters [at the Sunnylands estate],” a senior State Department official told The Daily Beast. “We had people who were at the top of their field. The goal was to continue the dialogue started at the [White House] summit.”
Sunnylands was in charge of pulling together the roster of talent, and invited the State Department to participate. One of the goals was to connect Middle Eastern filmmakers with influential Hollywood figures to start plotting “how to engage and empower storytellers [to] create alternative and positive narratives, and how to talk about youth empowerment,” according to the official, who works on these initiatives.
For instance, these filmmakers discussed producing content that promotes stories of young people living in the region who have rejected Islamist terror and work to improve their communities—entrepreneurial work, starting small businesses, launching NGOs, doing volunteer work, and so forth.
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“It’s the best way to provide a counter-narrative to extremists,” the official said, suggesting that this kind of “positive” media—aired in the Middle East and elsewhere—could help push back against jihadist hype and ideally put a dent in the increase in terrorist recruitment.
Some counterterrorism veterans skeptical that the collaboration will amount to much. “Reaching out to Hollywood makes sense in principle,” Will McCants, a former State Department senior counterterrorism adviser who helped set up State’s anti-jihadist digital outreach, told The Daily Beast. “But this sort of thing usually ends up with executives from D.C. and Hollywood high-fiving each other and throwing around some cringeworthy ideas. What you’d want instead is the [government] guy in the trenches talking to the edgy independent filmmaker. That’ll get you closer to the sensibility ISIS is tapping into.”
(McCants recalls that during his time at State he was pitched by a company that wanted to fly Hollywood writers and producers to Kabul for at least a week to help craft a positive national narrative for the Afghans. The price tag for that was approximately $4 million.)
“This sort of thing usually ends up with executives from D.C. and Hollywood high-fiving each other and throwing around some cringeworthy ideas.”
Other recent attempts at this model—fighting Islamic extremist narratives through media and social media—have been going on for years with little discernible effect. The State Department has already tried trolling terrorists on its own on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and online message boards, with unimpressive results at best. The department’s 2013 YouTube spoof of al Qaeda propaganda videos was widely panned, and a 2012 study on U.S. digital outreach, published in The Middle East Journal, found that these types of initiatives were doing little to curtail anti-American sentiment on the Internet in the Middle East. (A paltry 4 percent of posts expressed a positive view of the outreach, and only 4.8 percent exhibited happy thoughts about American foreign policy.)
“ISIS’s message is that Muslims are being killed and that they’re the solution,” Alberto Fernandez, coordinator at the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, told The Atlanticthis year. “We don’t have a counter-narrative that speaks to that. What we have is half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But we lack the ‘do this instead.’ That’s not very exciting. The positive narrative is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.”
The State Department also maintains the American Film Showcase, an exchange program run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that aims to use cinema as a tool to foster cultural understanding. The program, which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once hailed as being part of “smart power diplomacy,” includes both documentaries and narrative films.
“Through a cooperative agreement with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts…in 2015-2016, [the Bureau] will send 50 films and more than 70 filmmakers and film experts to approximately 40 countries around the world,” Susan Pittman, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “It will also host workshops in Los Angeles for emerging filmmakers.”
One of the initiatives of the showcase includes a USC workshop in partnership with the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities that will provide TV-drama producers from several countries lessons on how to “improve narrative techniques and more effectively incorporate social causes into their programming,” according to Pittman. The bureau also plans to start a new six-week film-mentoring program with industry leaders in Los Angeles next year.
The State Department working with allies in Hollywood to undermine foreign enemies is hardly a new concept. In the early 1950s, the State Department collaborated with dozens of Hollywood filmmakers to create roughly 400 feature and short films highlighting the superiority of American civil society. The films targeted European and Asian rural audiences, and the project was described at the time as “the greatest celluloid propaganda drive ever attempted in foreign countries.”
And as the Obama administration’s shortcomings in the online arena in the ISIS war appear to persist, the White House is kicking off yet another CVE summit on Tuesday, which President Obama will be hosting while in New York City for the annual UN General Assembly.
“I will be participating in the global youth summit with dozens of organizations and young people from dozens of countries coming together on initiatives they have built [that started at the summit last February], Lisa Monaco, an adviser to President Obama on homeland security and counterterrorism, told reporters. “We’ve got a set of topics that we’ll be building on Tuesday morning…to address the whole life cycle of terrorist violence that we’re trying to go after with the whole of government approach.”
Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the summit will underscore the “partnership against violent extremism to [include] not only national governments, but also civil society, including women, young people, religious leaders, as well as the private sector and local community leaders, and also multilateral groups.”
“We are going to keep trying to foster greater involvement of the technology sector that is developing a digital strategy for promoting private countering-violent-extremism efforts, and also greater philanthropic support for these private efforts,” Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, told reporters.
The State Department’s latest CVE back-and-forth with Hollywood—which would ideally help fill the void for the “do this instead”—is still in an embryonic stage. Any potential future partnerships or collaboration with, say, HBO, Snapchat, or Boal have yet to be announced. As for whether or not this will actually lead to progress in a media war against the Islamic State, that’s an entirely open question. But since ISIS propagandists have been so keen to adopt the flashy editing techniques of Hollywood and horror movies, perhaps it’s a sign that Hollywood might as well help others fight back.
HBO, Snapchat, and Boal did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier and Noah Shachtman
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."