Thursday, June 30, 2016

Quotable: Seamus Hughes on counter-messaging campaigns

Wednesday, June 29th 2016

Hughes image from

Seamus Hughes, the Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism in the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University provided some revealing granularity on counter-messaging efforts of American technology companies and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.  He testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s June 23, 2016 hearing on “Countering the Virtual Caliphate.”  His fullstatement is here; clips follow:

  • The United States, for a variety of reasons and with some notable exceptions, does not have extremist organizations providing in-person ideological and logistical support to individuals drawn to the jihadi narrative.

  • As a result, many American ISIS sympathizers are forced to find like-minded communities online. U.S. authorities estimate that several thousand Americans consume ISIS propaganda online creating what has been described as a “radicalization echo chamber.”

  • American ISIS sympathizers are active on a variety of platforms, from open forums like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr, to more discrete messaging applications such as Kik, Telegram, and surespot.

  • American ISIS supporters online broadly divide into two sets: those who locate themselves in Syria and Iraq and those still in America but aspiring to assist ISIS in a number of ways. Those in the former group often maintain their network of friends in the U.S. after arriving in ISIS territory. They post near real-time updates of ISIS-led attacks and life in the Caliphate, encouraging their fellow Americans to make the trek and, at times, scolding their offline and online friends for their lack of commitment to the cause.

  • ISIS sympathizers use the online environment . . . to spread their propaganda. Second, in some cases, ISIS recruiters act as spotters to identify and groom impressable, and often young, men and women into supporting the group.

  • While social media allows ISIS to push its message to a larger audience, the use of these platforms alone does not fully explain the group’s powerful draw.

  • There is a well-used but decentralized system that provides a level of resiliency to these online social networks. Using Twitter as an example, ISIS “shoutout” accounts announce the newly created accounts of previously suspended users, to a degree allowing returning users to reconnect with their social networks.
  •  . . . it is important to note that the ISIS Twitter network has declined substantially since 2014 as a result of sustained suspensions.

  • An overt English-language ISIS support network is nearly gone from Facebook, but they occasionally mount campaigns and use it for person-to-person communication.

  • Accelerant, Not Necessarily the Starter:  ISIS-related radicalization is by no means limited to social media. While instances of purely web-driven, individual radicalization are numerous, in several cases U.S.-based individuals initially cultivated, and later strengthened, their interest in ISIS’ narrative through face-to-face relationships.

  • It is an over-simplification to say that “internet radicalization” is the main factor among American ISIS supporters.

  • The newly formed the Global Engagement Center (GEC) represents a recognition that previous efforts needed to be adjusted.

  • However, the bureaucratic and structural issues that hampered the GEC’s predecessor are, to a very real extent, still present.

  • Greater interaction between State Department employees and ISIS supporters would likely yield better results. This is not to say that a State Department tweet will dissuade a hardened supporter, but the goal of online engagement should be to introduce seeds of doubt so that in-person interventions can be more successful.

  • Additionally, there are some operational benefits to the State Department muddling the online efforts of ISIS supporters via counter-messaging.

  • There are many barriers to this approach.  As demonstrated in reactions to the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, there is little appetite for the trial and error necessary for effective counter-messaging. Successful counter-messaging campaigns need the political capital to operate with flexibility.

  • There has been a noticeable push to empower local partners to provide counter- and alternative-messaging. In conversations with civil society partners, many have expressed concern that engaging with known or suspected terrorists online may unduly place them under law enforcement suspicion.

  • . . . technology companies are much more comfortable with providing training and expertise on how to use their platforms for counter- and alternative-messaging and much less comfortable when it comes to removal of content.

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