"Quotable: Nicole Hong on pushing back against ISIS social messaging," publicdiplomacycouncil.org
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Monday, August 29th 2016
“After online efforts fizzle, government turns to encouraging others to join battle to counteract the terrorist group’s propaganda,” is the subhead of an August 28, 2016, article, “U.S. Revamps Line of Attack in Social-Media Fight Against Islamic State,” by Nicole Hong in The Wall Street Journal. Her summary highlights the doctrinal shift – away from direct USG messaging toward working with partners. Both the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security are engaged. This short gist necessarily omits many informative details, but here are some bullet points:
- Recent initiatives by technology companies to push back against Islamic State’s social-media messaging highlight a sobering fact: The U.S. government’s battle on that front has mostly sputtered.
- The government’s countermessaging efforts so far have been scattershot and, some close to the government think, largely ineffective. Officials say the government’s new strategy is to empower third parties to create their own messages, a contrast from earlier efforts that were criticized for having too much direct government involvement.
- . . . the Global Engagement Center [is] a new State Department initiative created this year to combat Islamic State messaging. Unlike the previous effort, the center aims to reduce the government’s direct engagement online, especially in English, which officials saw as ineffective.
- There are some encouraging signs. Since June 2014, there has been a 45% drop in pro-Islamic State tweets, said U.S. officials, citing data analytics technology that tracks Islamic State’s presence on social media.
- It’s unclear, however, whether the drop in tweets has resulted in fewer foreign fighters wanting to join the terrorist group.
- Islamic State supporters are also becoming more active on encrypted messaging apps, experts say, which raises the question of whether counternarratives on platforms like Twitter or Facebook are reaching the proper audience.
- Government-backed messaging has always been fraught with challenges. In 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act, which said government information about the U.S. could only be distributed overseas. Those restrictions were later loosened but are still seen as somewhat outdated in the internet age. Nevertheless, the legal rules have forced the State Department to be careful not to present its messaging efforts as domestic propaganda, experts say.
- The most significant hurdle lies not with the messages themselves, but with the messenger, according to current and former government officials. Experts widely acknowledge that directives from the U.S. government are unlikely to resonate with young people interested in joining Islamic State.
- That presents the dilemma of how the government can support countermessaging efforts by tech companies and Muslim community leaders without undermining them.
- A bipartisan congressional task force and the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which advises the Homeland Security secretary, have both recommended stronger countermessaging efforts by the government.
- The Department of Homeland Security announced last month that it would set aside $10 million of its budget to launch the first federal grant program devoted exclusively to “countering violent extremism,” which includes countermessaging initiatives. School districts, local governments and nonprofits around the U.S. have been invited to apply.
- Earlier this month, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London think tank, published a report studying what kinds of counternarratives are most effective online. The experiments were funded by Google parent Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. One conclusion from the study: The messages should be narrowly targeted to a particular audience.
- Over the past year, the government has helped tech companies like Facebook create competitions for college students around the world to come up with their own campaigns against extremism. The efforts recognize that young people will respond best to messages created by other young people. This spring there were 54 universities in the competitions, up from 45 schools last fall.
- In April, the House passed a bill that would require Homeland Security to use testimonials of former extremists and defectors to combat terrorism, a strategy that is widely employed in Europe. State Department officials also have encouraged media companies and filmmakers to host workshops where Muslim activists can learn to film their own content.