THE ISLAMIC STATE wants to rule the world. It murders enemies—sometimes in mass, sometimes individually, always brutally. It enslaves and abuses women. It jails everyday joes for smoking, drinking, trading, or speaking their minds. It is a brutal, dead-end regime cloaked in a perverted medieval understanding of one of the world’s great religious faiths.
But one of the scariest things, Westerners seem to agree, is that ISIS is really good at Twitter.
The U.S. diplomatic corps is fully engaged in a battle to beat ISIS in the electronic talkosphere. But what does that mean, exactly?
So far, the government’s social media campaign against ISIS has been, like most governmental campaigns, long on bureaucracy and short on details. The State Department’s chief of “public diplomacy,” former Timemanaging editor Rick Stengel, oversees a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, whose portfolio includes social media culture-jamming. Its tasks include “creating communities of interest, supporting positive voices, narrowing the space violent extremists have to work in, repeatedly and aggressively presenting the reality of what is going on on the ground,” according to former CSCC head Alberto Fernandez.
How that happens is fairly opaque. Part of that is because of government inside baseball–intrigues on who should run the State Department’s anti-ISIS team, and how tightly it should coordinate with other agencies. But there are deeper structural problems with the whole endeavor, too. My experience in wartime military social media is: There are a multitude of ways to screw it up, and not many ways to get a positive result.
With that in mind, here are a few strategies the U.S. can use to combat ISIS. Like any strategy in counterinsurgency, none is a panacea, but all have advantages worth considering. Some of these the government is already doing, though I have some notes for how to improve their reach. Others are my own humble suggestions. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.
Play Some Mood Music
The first and most obvious strategy is to use social media the way a government agency or corporation uses any other PR tool: To tell a coherent story about yourself and your competitors. This the government is attempting to do.
“More important than ideologies and ideas are how those elements are packaged, delivered and digested for wider audiences,” Fernandez says. “More than fully formed ideologies, we are all prodded and driven by narratives – by stories, images, slogans, memes, and stereotypes.”
This means performing some typical Twitter feats—fact-checking and #realkeeping when dullards spout detestable dumbness. Beyond that, it also means humanizing Americans and their allies, as well as the victims of ISIS aggression. “Given some of the language you sometimes hear from lone wolf attacks in the West or al-Qaeda propaganda videos,” Fernandez says, “you would be shocked to know that 85 percent of their victims are Muslims and that that percentage has risen even higher in the past few years.”
One achievable goal, then, is “to reclaim the stories and lives of these forgotten victims” and articulate the damage ISIS actually does, including to its own adherents. It also means retweeting emotionally resonant messages like this:
How much does this approach accomplish?
Very little among jihadis, who will easily counter that Western policies are just as responsible for death and mayhem. And it does nothing to dispel overly simplistic accounts of the ISIS-U.S. struggle as a “clash of civilizations.” But it has fewer drawbacks than more targeted, aggressive strategies–unless, of course, it deteriorates into bombastic propaganda and scaremongering stereotypes.
Target Specific Users With Smarm
One way the State Department uses its mood music is to blast it out at individuals who toe the jihadi line. Its “Think Again, Turn Away” program aims to deter them from joining the global jihad by pointing out its costs and the hypocrisy of its leaders.
How effective are these tweets and videos? Good damn question. “If you’re talking about would-be extremists reading a tweet and turning away from violence as a result, it’s hard to tell how much that is happening,” CSCC official Will McCants told Mother Jones early last year, before leaving for the Brookings Institution. “So if you measure success that way, it’s hard to know.”
One recent study says such campaigns are dismissed as disingenuous “spin” by target audiences and “generate more negativity” toward the U.S. and its social media operators. And when a campaign goes bad, brother, it goes comically bad. The State Department became the butt of multiple jokes in 2013 after releasing a bizarre YouTube video spoofing Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. As the Daily Dot observed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
There’s another dilemma that complicates this sort of campaign: If you’re trying to sincerely engage young Muslim populations to dissuade them from supporting ISIS, your conversation needs to meet them on their level to be credible, and that kind of a conversation would likely outrage conservative-leaning US citizens—creeping sharia and all that. To be able to articulate how murder and torture are un-Islamic, you have to be conversant in Islamic jurisprudence and cultures and to also exercise a degree of empathy with your subject. Doing that without pandering, or appearing to pander, to terror is a tall order in the American political atmosphere.
For example, Fernandez’ successor to run the CSCC is a Muslim American who was immediately accused by right-wing loons of being too cozy with the dreaded Muslim Brotherhood. Great point, Breitbart! Perhaps you’d prefer if U.S. digital outreach to the Muslim world was run by your crazy uncle with the Benghazi theories and a sticker affixed to his Dodge pickup window of Calvin pissing on Bin Laden and Obama.
Of course, that’s not how this sort of information operation works. This is classic counter-intelligence stuff here. Exactly what is needed is someone who can communicate comfortably with would-be extremists with cultural sensitivity and knowledge. You don’t win hearts and minds by telling your subject he’s wrong and immoral. You get build trust through credibility.
Turn the Trolling Up to 11
In for a penny, in for a pound. Take it for granted that they’re wrong, and everyone knows it. Then annoy the hell out of them with withering wit for being wrong.
One classic example of the hard troll is hashtag hijacking, as when an Al Qaeda Twitter account used a specific hashtag in 2013 to solicit ideas for new terror attacks… and ended up with a lot of facetious responses. (In that case, it wasn’t the U.S. government that ruined that hashtag campaign–it was regular twitter users. But the government could easily follow that lead.)
In another good case, opponents of ISIS in their Syrian stronghold, Raqqa, taunted trash-talking foreign jihadis for shopping instead of, you know, doing jihad:
This kind of trolling is psychically satisfying, and it rallies your own supporters, and who knows? Maybe it annoys jihadis to the point of backing off. Anyone who’s ever been trolled knows how hard it is to use Twitter for about 36 hours afterward.
At its best, trolling could theoretically accomplish something more. Movements with high ambitions lose momentum when those ambitions go unfulfilled. As Graeme Wood recently argued in The Atlantic, the Islamic State has mighty ambitions that require it not just to hold territory, but to expand its reach. Which means that pointing out its recent entrenchment and other failures might actually raise some tough questions in jihadis’ minds: Come on, al-Baghdadi, when’s it gonna be our time? It potentially sows doubts in ISIS sympathizers’ minds that ISIS really has the divine mandate it claims.
Court Some Proxies to Do Your Work for You
Probably the most effective and most troubling government strategy is to get NGOs, grassroots groups, and individual influencers to do your messaging for you.
This can work for obvious reasons: Bad guys and their sympathizers don’t care what the US government wants them to do, but they can be influenced by peers or cultural in-groups. “People who are attracted to [jihadism] don’t go to the government for their guidance on what to do,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in early February.
There are plenty of passionate social media users who bravely resist ISIS’s brand of governance and religion. Those embarrassing tweets above from the streets of Raqqa? They’re from activists from “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a group of anti-ISIS, anti-Assad locals operating in the city to undermine terrorists’ hold on the place.
For his part, Stengel, the undersecretary of state, is ready to leverage them. He thinks efforts like that have literally stopped some young people from joining ISIS. “They’re reading the messages, they’re hearing the messages—not just from us but from the hundreds of Islamic clerics who have said that this is a perversion of Islam, from the hundreds of Islamic scholars who have said the same thing,”he told CNN–though he didn’t cite any specific evidence.
It’s unclear to what extent the US is currently coordinating or running efforts by NGOs, clerics, and everyday individuals, but doing so carries huge risks for everyone involved. It co-opts the messengers, potentially endangers them, and gives audiences more reason to suspect the anti-ISIS messages they receive are nothing more than clunky propaganda.
Most good social media editors know their job isn’t just to push out content; it’s also to see what’s going on “out there.” When you’re tracking jihadis and their fans on the internet, that task becomes all-important—listening and watching are probably more critical skills than talking back.
“If every single ISIS supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence—assuming that intelligence is, in fact, being mined effectively by someone somewhere,” terrorism experts J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan wrote in a new Brookings report published this month.
Berger and Morgon estimate there are some 50,000 ISIS members or sympathizers on Twitter, many of them still pushing out geotagged photos and texts–even though the jihadi group has ordered its members to be smarter than that. And some agencies and contractors are already hoovering up this data for analysis and recommendations.
Interestingly, “the most valuable intelligence tends to emanate from the least obvious vectors, such as accounts with very small numbers of followers,” the authors write. “The most active and visible accounts contain more noise, and their content is more carefully stage-managed by ISIS and its adherents.”
Get jihadi Recruiters’ and Rabblerousers’ Accounts Suspended
“ISIS supporters themselves… characterized the effects of the suspensions as ‘devastating’ in strategy documents, and repeatedly emphasized the importance of creating new accounts,” Berger and Morgon write, adding that hashtag mentions of the group have dwindled from 40,000 a day in September 2014 to 5,000 last month–a result of efforts by Twitter staff in San Francisco to disrupt the group’s communications.
This is alarming to many free-speech activists, who fear a government-corporate alliance of speech police could have a broader chilling effect on unpopular sentiments. It’s true: the ground for an overreaction and an excessively censorious culture is fertile. But it’s not an either-or proposition, Berger says, insisting that “we can enforce some controls over terrorism online without knocking everyone off.” He adds that there’s little truth to claims that suspending some “terrorist accounts” loses analysts valuable intelligence. But it sure cuts down on horrible execution videos.
Ultimately: Do as Little as Possible
This is arguably my most radical suggestion for how the US can combat ISIS online: it should do nothing. Or at least, not much, beyond intelligence-gathering and occasionally lobbying social media companies to suspend especially odious mujahids.
Doing nothing, in particular, has multiple advantages. First, it plays to a government agency’s strengths. But most importantly, it doesn’t inflate the enemy’s importance.
Most of the U.S. government’s engagement with jihadis violates a key social media rule for influential users: Punch up, not down. Getting into a Twitter fight, for example, with an egg-avatar knucklehead who has three followers mostly just gives him a bigger platform than he could ever have alone–and makes him look to others as if he’s worth your time.
This principle is clearer when you consider how we in the media have covered ISIS’ social media chops, expanding the group’s clout by lavishing attention on it. Many a trend story was written over an idle, probably meaningless threat promulgated by some three-follower stand-in for ISIS on Twitter. “Most mainstream media reaches a far larger audience than any IS social media account,” Berger wrote last year in a broadly shared admonition to journalists covering ISIS’s social media. “Consider whether you are taking a nobody and making him or her a somebody.”
He cites the lesson of Inspire, the laughably stupid English-language Al Qaeda magazine that began catching major headlines as soon as it was published, with features like “Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and an article on turning your pickup truck into a sword-twirling tractor of death to plow crowds with.
It might have fizzled, if everyone had ignored it. Instead, the media had a freakout, wringing its hands over impossible scenarios dreamed up by chickenhawking islamists. “Inspirewould never have reached so many people as it did if not for the constant and overwhelming inflation of its value in the Western media, an inflation that was often based on inaccurate information,” Berger says. “And Inspire lapped up that coverage like a thirsty kitten.”
Likewise with ISIS, whose prominence–and whose alleged social media prowess–have been fueled by the ceaseless media attention, a feedback loop that expands the Islamic State’s “brand” and reach.
Most of this plays right into ISIS’ hands. It doesn’t mind government accounts tweeting out stories about its brutality; it counts on it. “In fact, the Islamic State’s media strategy, through its online social media posts and publications, highlights the group’s intention to scare all its enemies,” writes Al-Monitor’s Ali Hashem.
He’s totally right: Some enemies will be scared into submission, and some–like the U.S.–will be scared into overreacting, online and on the ground. Sometimes, the best strategic advice is the counsel of the frustrated tic-tac-toe-playing computer in War Games: The only winning move is not to play.