Com­bat­ing a dig­i­tal caliphate

We shouldn’t need com­puter lessons from the Is­lamic State

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION SUNDAY - BY JANE HAR­MAN The writer, a for­mer Demo­cratic mem­ber of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, is pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Scholars.

Two weeks ago in Bos­ton, author­i­ties stopped a dis­turbed young man be­fore he could launch a terror at­tack; trag­i­cally, last week in Chat­tanooga, the story ended very dif­fer­ently. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials are scram­bling to learn whether clues were missed that could have pre­vented the rampage and led to the al­leged shooter, Mo­ham­mod Yous­suf Ab­du­lazeez. But in too many cases, the bread­crumb trail starts with sus­pi­cious ones and zeros— with dig­i­tal pro­pa­ganda that we still strug­gle to counter.

In 2007, when Twit­ter was a year young and What­sApp was still two years away, I in­tro­duced a bill that would have set up a na­tional com­mis­sion to study the newways that terror groups were reach­ing the lost, dis­af­fected and psy­cho­pathic. The Vi­o­lent Rad­i­cal­iza­tion and Home­grown Ter­ror­ism Preven­tion Act of 2007 passed the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives by a vote of 404 to 6, be­fore it was mis­con­strued by out­side groups and moth­balled by the Se­nate.

The un­prece­dented savvy of the Is­lamic State — the shock­ing reach of its “dig­i­tal caliphate” — makes this work more ur­gent than ever. Online, we move too slowly and know too lit­tle to com­bat this gen­er­a­tion of Web-na­tive ji­hadists. We’ve failed to mo­bi­lize tech and mes­sag­ing tal­ent to counter the Is­lamic State on so­cial media. This coun­try built Sil­i­con Val­ley; we shouldn’t need com­puter lessons from 7th-cen­tury thugs. It’s past time to bring our coun­ternar­ra­tive up to date.

In part, this is a ca­pac­ity prob­lem. Or­ga­ni­za­tions fight­ing the mes­sage bat­tle, such as the State Depart­ment’s Cen­ter for Strate­gic Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, are dra­mat­i­cally un­der­re­sourced. The “Think Again Turn Away” cam­paign, which re­buts ji­hadist ac­counts, has fired off al­most 6,000 tweets — but Ali Shukri Amin, a 17-year-old Vir­ginian who pleaded guilty last month to spread­ing Is­lamic State pro­pa­ganda, has launched more than 7,000 by him­self. A re­cent study from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion found that tens of thou­sands of Is­lamic State boost­ers such as Amin are ac­tive on Twit­ter, am­pli­fied by bots that help get pro­pa­ganda trend­ing. Be­fore we even ask if we have the mes­sage right, it should be ob­vi­ous those num­bers don’t work. We’re try­ing to do by hand what the Is­lamic State crowd-sources.

We sim­ply must do bet­ter. Po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns have been trans­formed by the power to mi­cro-tar­get vot­ers; that skill set needs to be brought to bear for coun­ter­mes­sag­ing. Such ef­forts could al­low us to reach some­one such as “Ji­had Jane,” whose MyS­pace posts in­cluded state­ments such as “I sup­port all the Mu­jahideen.” She didn’t fit the typ­i­cal terror pro­file, and the good news is we found her be­fore she could act. Imag­ine if search­ing for be­head­ing videos brought up ads for main­stream spir­i­tual re­sources in the searcher’s com­mu­nity; imag­ine if ji­hadist Twit­ter bub­bles were punc­tured by tar­geted mes­sages from re­spon­si­ble re­li­gious author­i­ties. The same ap­proach drives a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar dig­i­tal ad econ­omy, dom­i­nated by firms that know you — sta­tis­ti­cally — bet­ter than your mother does. Google, Face­book and Twit­ter work with clients in ev­ery space, in­clud­ing both po­lit­i­cal par­ties, to shape max­i­mally per­sua­sive cam­paigns that reach peo­ple where they are. By part­ner­ing with tech firms, there’s no rea­son we can’t nar­row­cast more ef­fec­tively than our en­e­mies.

We can do it with­out com­pro­mis­ing pri­vacy or civil lib­er­ties more than a pop-up ad does. And we can do it for far less than it costs to hire fed­eral work­ers to tweet all day.

So far, the fail­ure to lever­age Big Data for coun­ter­mes­sag­ing has been a strate­gic fail­ure of the anti-Is­lamic State cam­paign. But who should do the lever­ag­ing? We need to be very aware that our soft power is lim­ited in these spa­ces. @ThinkA­gain_DOS does too much of what younger In­ter­net users would call “sea-li­on­ing”: jump­ing with a splash into con­ver­sa­tions where it doesn’t be­long. The kind of kids swayed by Dabiq, the Is­lamic State’s glossy mag­a­zine, are not the kind of kids open to the in­put of the State Depart­ment. Re­cruit­ment is hap­pen­ing on plat­forms where the U.S. gov­ern­ment has less than zero cul­tural cap­i­tal.

Smart, sub­tle part­ner­ship will be the key. Al­ready, ef­forts such as the Net­work Against Vi­o­lent Ex­trem­ism, a Google Ideas ef­fort, are con­nect­ing the voices that can speak cred­i­bly on these is­sues: ex-ji­hadists, for­mer rad­i­cals, sur­vivors of ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence. When top-down gov­ern­ment ap­proaches are flawed, then bot­tom-up, grass­roots or­ga­niz­ing is an ob­vi­ous next try. The gov­ern­ment still has skin in the game — dol­lars and cents, and, more im­por­tant, con­ven­ing power and in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing — that can make these public-pri­vate part­ner­ships work. But it needs to lead from be­hind. Get re­li­gious lead­ers, po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants and tech firms in the same room, then step back. This is a com­mu­nity ef­fort and an Amer­i­can ef­fort — the feds aren’t the right face for it.

We used to be good at this kind of part­ner­ship, of­fer­ing the bet­ter mes­sen­gers a help­ing hand. Dur­ing the Cold War, the United States qui­etly sup­ported im­por­tant cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, literary jour­nals — even the Rus­sian-lan­guage pub­li­ca­tion of “Dr. Zhivago.”

To­day our war for hearts and minds is fought online, not in print; the key ex­per­tise isn’t cen­tered in Washington. As the techies say, there has to be an app for that.


FBI agents and lo­cal po­lice work the scene of a shoot­ing at the Armed Forces Ca­reer Cen­ter in Chat­tanooga, Tenn.

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