Monday, November 16, 2015

Students, Madison Avenue Enlisted in Messaging Fight Against ISIS

Kate Kaye,

Combating Extremism With Social Media and Other Marketing Tactics

image from

Sixteen West Point cadets in their dress grays sat in a BuzzFeed conference room in New York on Nov. 3, a giant version of the site's "wtf" button stenciled on a wall in the distance. As they soaked up the frenetic energy, they hoped a little of the pop-culture media giant's viral pixie dust might drift their way.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is among 45 schools worldwide whose students are developing programs to battle extremism, but not with fighter jets or ground troops. It's a war of ideas in which participants use the same social media and other marketing tactics that have been harnessed aggressively as recruitment armaments for the Islamic State.

The academy, along with schools in places as far flung as Springfield, Mass., and Saudi Arabia, are participants this fall semester in an unprecedented private-public program called Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism, in which young people are the ones crafting plans and strategies in the hopes of saving their peers from the grips of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. They are receiving input from professionals on Madison Avenue, getting support from tech companies including Facebook and finding champions in Congress.

"Peer 2 Peer is a very promising program," said Rep. Bill Keating, Democrat of Massachusetts and ranking member on the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee. "In working to counter violent extremism, the people best positioned to communicate with at-risk youth are fellow young people."

Peer 2 Peer began in January, long before last Friday's attacks in Paris, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Now the students of Lt. Col. Bryan Price, a Ph.D. and director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, are building a social community website that he likens to Reddit and will be aimed at "Western-speaking fence-sitters." That's what brought them to BuzzFeed.

"We need to engage different ideas and different ways to do things," Mr. Price said.

When they met with BuzzFeed World Editor Hayes Brown and publicist Katie Rayford earlier this month, the group discussed the firm's metrics for success and the methods it uses to keep audiences engrossed in its content.

"Sometimes our government has difficulties in this space," Mr. Price added, calling previous government initiatives to fight terrorism "preachy" and suggesting that his college-age pupils understand how to communicate via social platforms and emerging media better than his generation.

Mr. Price explored those difficulties earlier this year in an article for the CTC Sentinel that he cowrote with Pete Favat, chief creative officer at Deutsch North America and creative director on the iconic "Truth" antismoking campaign while at Arnold Worldwide, who also visited West Point to speak. "Previous attempts to incorporate Madison Avenue-style branding into the U.S. government's public diplomacy took a conventional advertising approach that tried to sell America and our value system to the masses in the Middle East, with lackluster if not counterproductive results," they wrote. "A counter-industry campaign like 'Truth,' on the other hand, aimed at dissuading future foreign fighters, would not aim to sell a Western alternative to the Islamic State. It would instead attempt to 'unsell' what the Islamic State and other groups are advertising."

The Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism initiative has grown from 23 participating schools in its first spring semester. Four federal agencies have pooled funds to support it: the National Counterterrorism Center and the departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense. Together, they've spent around $1 million on the project over its first two semesters.

The program gives $2,000 each to colleges where select students are tasked to conjure campaigns to steer potential recruits away from the Islamic State. The idea is grounded in the recognition that preventing recruitment by extremists will take something other than a typical top-down government initiative, and could be better achieved by people the same age as the ones who might be lured by the dark side.

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