Counter-Terrorism Tweeters Finding it Tough
Source Dave Anderson
Date 14/09/20/23:37
Why the US Government's Counter-Terrorism Tweeters Are Finding it
Tough to Fight ISIS Online

It's not just the lolcats.
—By Jenna McLaughlin

In its ascent, ISIS—the murderous extremist group controlling
territory in Syria and Iraq that President Barack Obama has declared
war on—has wielded a powerful weapon: social media. Its extensive
online presence, which ranges from the posting of lolcat-like photos
to videos of violent beheadings, has extended the organization's reach
and boosted recruitment efforts that have fueled its rapid growth. And
the State Department has mounted an initiative to beat back the
Internet propaganda of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is
also known as ISIS or ISIL. But a senior State Department official
says that because the group's social media messaging contains an
"element of truth," it is hard to combat its online campaign.

In 2011, the State Department launched the Center for Strategic
Counter-terrorism Communication, which developed anti-terrorism
Twitter accounts that were first directed at Al Qaeda. The goal: to
directly engage with people overseas who were interested in or drawn
to the beliefs and actions of extremist organizations. The online
campaign is called "Think Again, Turn Away," and it includes accounts
in several languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Somali and English.
These Twitter feedsroutinely posts articles and messages countering
jihadist claims and arguments. The group also manages social media
accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Google Plus.

And there is snark: Once, when a known Australian jihadist was
claiming to be fighting in the Middle East for the Islamic State, the
State Department tweeted avideo of him being arrested on a beach in
the Philippines, mocking him for lying about his whereabouts. The
tweet reads".@MusaCerantonio Turns out that you were having fun on the
beaches of the Philippines rather than doing #HijrahToIS." (The word
"hijrah" refers to a journey first taken by Muhammad. "IS" is
shorthand for the Islamic State.)

On Wednesday, the State Department tweeted at a Muslim woman who
praised ISIS for its free transportation, her profile displaying pink
text and black ISIS flags. The department's retort: "ISIS will be
charitable…if they decide not to kill you #Thugs #thinkagainturnaway."

"If you want to defeat their message, you have to change the elements
that make it powerful," a senior State Department official says. "You
have to answer them, find the arguments, not bullshit. It isn't easy."

Several State Department tweets feature extremists from New Zealand to
England who have regrettedjoining ISIS. Other tweets highlight the
consequences of ISIS' violent campaign, such as a pregnant Iraqi woman
forced to give birth in a refugee camp. The State Department also
posts articles about the arrests and legal troubles of extremists.

The State Department was targeting ISIS militants months before the
group was front-page news. This mission has been more challenging than
countering Al Qaeda, according to the senior State Department
official, because ISIS is far more advanced in utilizing social media.

Some counter-terrorism experts have criticized the State Department's
efforts to battle ISIS online. In a recent article in Time, Rita Katz,
whose SITE Intelligence Group has been tracking jihadists' online
activity for more than a decade, claimed the State Department's
campaign "provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments."

In 2012, the program had a $5 million dollar budget. But the digital
outreach team, made up of around 45 staff members in 2012 including 20
native speakers of Arabic, Urdu and Somali, in charge of this online
counter-terrorism effort has limited means of determining its success.
According to a 2012 study in the Middle East Journal, only 4 percent
of responses to the team's posts expressed positive views of the
outreach efforts. Yet the State Department tweeters have become well
known within certain quarters of the online world of Islamic
extremists. ISIS and Al Qaeda followers have warned their online
comrades to ignore the US government tweeters, with some vowing to
silence or spam them.

According to the State Department, no extremist has publicly declared
that he or she has reconsidered joining ISIS or another extremist
group because of the department’s messages.

The Think Again, Turn Away project has run into one particular
problem, according to the senior department official. ISIS uses its
sophisticated social media skills to disseminate propaganda that has
"an element of truth."

A core component of ISIS' social media messaging is that tens of
thousands of innocent people have been suffering and dying in Syria at
the hands of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, that ISIS is a powerful
counter-force opposing the Assad regime, and that it has racked up
multiple successes in this endeavor, such as the radical group’s
capture of a major Syrian military air base in August. These
assertions have the benefit of being accurate. That makes it harder
for the State Department to push a different narrative about ISIS and
reach people who may be on the fence about joining its cause.

The group's focus on Syria is "a very powerful argument" according to
the senior State Department official. "It is a deep, burning, urgent
grievance." By tying the tragedy of Syria to the group’s religious
ideology, the State Department official says, ISIS promotes a
compelling narrative of "sanctioned violence" and "victory" blessed by
God. One of the group's mottos is "baqiya"—"here to stay" in
Arabic—and its affiliates constantly post the phrase online.

So how is the State Department trying to undermine the story the
Islamic State pushes on line? The department's digital team regularly
compare ISIS to Assad and highlight the violence and suffering it has
caused in Syria. For example, on Tuesday, the State Department
tweeted: "#ISIS to Syrians: What once was yours is now ours…#THIEVES
#thinkagainturnaway." The tweet included a photo of a Syrian religious
building painted black in the style of the ISIS flag.

The Foggy Bottom tweeters also highlight the group's defeats, such as
the battle to control the Mosul Dam, in which Kurdish soldiers pushed
back ISIS fighters, and the Iraqi forces' recent attack that retook
Fallujah University and killed about 30 ISIS rebels. But, the State
Department official notes, "sometimes there is no good answer" to the
group's propaganda. Devising a response that will turn off a
prospective jihadist from ISIS' radicalizing content—and doing so in a
tweet or Facebook post—is a struggle, he says: "it's like catching
lightning in a bottle."

"If you want to defeat their message, you have to change the elements
that make it powerful," this official adds. "You have to stop [ISIS]
from succeeding. You have to answer them, find the arguments, not
bullshit. It isn't easy."

Jenna McLaughlin is an editorial fellow with Mother Jones in the
Washington Bureau.

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