US takes the war on IS to social media
New drive to win ideological battle against terror
SOMETIME today, a teenager in Tunis will check his smartphone for the latest violent video from the Islamic State (IS). But the images that pop up first will be of a different genre: young Muslims questioning the morality of terrorists who slaughter innocents and enslave girls for sex.
“Don’t you kill our own Muslim brothers?” a mop-haired youth asks a terrorist recruiter in one animated video showing up on Arabic Facebook accounts in North Africa. “So much of this, it doesn’t seem right.”
The video is one of several paid ads that are turning up on millions of cellphones and computer screens in countries known to be top recruiting grounds for the IS. The ads offer a harrowing view of life inside the self-proclaimed caliphate, sometimes with photos or cartoons and often in the words of refugees and defectors who warn others to stay away.
Most make no mention of the ads’ sponsor – a small unit inside the State Department that is using guerrilla marketing tactics to wage ideological warfare against the IS. US officials are using Facebook profile data to find young Muslims who show an interest in jihadist causes. Then they bombard them with anti-terrorist messages that show up whenever the youths go online.
Other gover nment agencies have tried unsuccessfully to compete with militant jihadists in cyberspace. But officials at the State Department’s newly formed Global Engagement Center say they’re the first to tap into the internet’s vast stores of personal information to discourage individual users from joining the IS.
“You have meat-cleaver messaging – large thematic campaigns with big audiences – and then you have ‘scalpel’ messaging,” said Michael Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL who headed the centre before stepping down last month at the start of the Trump administration. “These are highly targeted messages that go to the most vulnerable audiences: people who are susceptible to recruitment.”
The 4-month-old campaign is undergoing renewed scrutiny as Trump formulates his own strategy for fighting the Islamic militants. The Trump White House has pledged to accelerate efforts to defeat the IS, though some senior officials also have questioned the effectiveness of government initiatives that seek to address the causes of violent extremism.
The centre’s counter-propaganda mission, now headed by a career public servant, was mandated by Congress under a law made last year that increased funding for the centre and expanded its mission, ensuring that the effort would continue for the immediate future.
Many lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, have praised the new approach. Republican Senator Rob Portman, who heads the investigations panel on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, championed the legislation to expand the centre, saying in December the US was “going to confront this threat head-on”.
But others have expressed scepticism.
“Should the federal government produce and disseminate content? Is the federal bureaucracy equipped for such a fast moving fight? I suspect not,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson Edward Royce asked the programme’s State Department overseers last year.
Some critics have also questioned whether the leaders would be able to produce quantifiable results, something that’s “difficult, given what they are trying to do”, said Tara Maller, a former CIA military analyst and senior policy adviser for the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit organisation that seeks to prevent terrorists use of social media.
“While they can target the vulnerable audience they want to capture and provide counter-messaging, that is only one part of addressing the fight against extremism online,” said Maller, who says she is broadly supportive of the new approach. But she said other government agencies and social-media companies must work in tandem to “remove the horrific content… that is radicalising individuals online every single day”.
State Department of ficials acknowledge it may be difficult to prove that their ads dissuaded anyone from joining a terrorist group. Yet the programme’s reach is indisputable: the videos have been watched more than 14 million times in a campaign that started in September and is pitched mainly to only three countries – Tunisia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The effort was recently expanded to include nine other countries in Europe and Asia, including France, Libya and Jordan. Other targeted countries remain secret to protect partnerships with their governments.
Though the initiative is still in its infancy, Lumpkin and his supporters still see the potential for achieving a goal that has eluded Western governments for more than a decade: an effective and credible counter-message to jihadist propaganda online, at a cost that is minuscule by government standards.
“There are places in the world where it costs a fraction of a penny per click,” Lumpkin said in an interview shortly before leaving his position on January 20. “For $15 000 (R200 000) you can buy an audience. And you make sure you’re hitting them with the best information based on their profiles. That’s good business.”
The Global Engagement Center was intentionally designed to emulate a Silicon Valley start-up, and months into its creation, it retains the same edgy, bare-bones feel. The entire workforce numbers just over 70 people, crammed into a cluster of offices at the State Department. The online initiative was designed by two computer whizzes, aged 36 and 28, who were recruited from the National Security Agency.
Lumpkin, the energetic 52-yearold California native who started the unit, was picked by for mer president Barack Obama to serve as a kind of entrepreneurial chief executive. Admired by former military colleagues for his skills as a fixer, the former SEAL and Special Operations commander was earlier tapped by the White House to lead the Pentagon’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. Before that, he helped secure army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captivity and managed crises for Veterans Affairs and the Defence Department’s troubled PoW accounting programme.
In his new role, Lumpkin was put in charge of a portion of the government’s counter-terrorism operations noted mostly for its stumbles.Upon his arrival early last year, Lumpkin was surprised to discover that much of the State Department’s counter-messaging was done in English.
Lumpkin, who ran a defence contracting fir m after retiring from the Navy, looked to private industry for technical help and inspiration.
Jigsaw, the technology incubator created by Google, had just launched a pilot programme to counter jihadist propaganda on the Google-owned video-sharing site, YouTube. Under this programme, called Redirect, YouTube users who searched for IS videos would automatically encounter video ads denouncing the group.
Lumpkin’s team adopted a similar approach that targets Facebook users, specifically young Muslims in countries heavily recruited by the IS. By buying ads on Facebook – something never before attempted in this way – the officials found they could tap into vast troves of data about the interests and browsing habits of legions of Facebook users, allowing them to pinpoint individuals who showed an affinity for jihadists groups and causes.
Compared to the State Department’s earlier efforts, the ads that began popping up on Facebook pages in September are strikingly different: nearly always in Arabic or another local language.
Lumpkin discovered quickly that the appeal of different messages varied from one region to another. In locales with strong tribal traditions, appeals to family and duty seem to resonate. In others, it’s the testimony of defectors, supplied mostly by partner agencies.
Lumpkin argues the ef fort remains a critical one for a reason that has long been apparent to terrorism experts: extremist ideologies can’t be defeated with conventional weapons alone. – The Washington Post
Don’t you kill our own Muslim brothers?