Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?

Over the past decade the relationship between new media and asymmetric warfare has been a hot topic. For all the promise of citizen journalism and unmediated access, the same technological innovations that empower everyday people also provide new avenues for propaganda and radicalization in the hands of terrorist organisations. The significance of this issue has been thrown into stark relief by the enormous success of ISIS social media strategy, which has menaced enemies with images of extreme brutality and radicalised thousands through powerful narratives centred on the persecution of Muslims abroad, religious duty and the prospect of adventure.

In response, Western governments have sought to counter ISIS online presence with a range of strategies, including pressuring social media organisations like Twitter and Facebook to shut down ISIS affiliated accounts, and gathering intelligence by monitoring online activity. However, perhaps the most widely publicised strategy has focused on countering ISIS online through state run social media accounts that challenge ISIS narratives and, in doing so, undermine the radicalisation of Western citizens.  

Yet there are good reasons to be sceptical about this approach. In a recent article published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs I explore the shortcomings of two US State Department programs that attempt to counter extremist narratives: the now discontinued Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT), which was tasked with debunking propaganda and misinformation about America; and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), a 50 strong unit that actively seeks to discredit ISIS online disseminators, undermining the image of ISIS as a vehicle for social justice, and challenging its claims about religious legitimacy and military success. The key problem for both programs is the recurring issue of credibility, when the authenticity of government information is undercut by the realities of foreign policy practice.

I show that this dynamic was implicit in the counterterrorism policy setting from which these programs emerged, where ideas were situated as a strategic capacity in a so-called War of Ideas. This set up a tension between the rhetoric of democracy and liberal idealism, advanced through US public diplomacy programs like the DOT, and the less savoury aspects of the War on Terror, including strategic deception, extraordinary rendition, extra-judicial detention, and ‘enhanced interrogation’, not to mention a military intervention in Iraq and less publically visible involvements in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, all justified through nebulous links to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This contradiction between rhetoric and practice invited the perception of hypocrisy, duplicity and propaganda, sentiments widely considered key sources of resentment towards the US in the Muslim world. My analysis demonstrates that this set the scene for extreme scepticism about CMT and DOT activities among online audiences.

One way to highlight this vulnerability is to show how the CMT’s own criteria for judging source reliability might easily invalidate the US government as a credible source of foreign policy information. For instance, were discerning Muslim audiences really in a position to take statements from the US government at face value? In making this determination, they would have to consider a laundry list of sanctioned illegality and official deception, including the US government’s direct or indirect involvement in covert regime change and other clandestine activities in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua, amongst others; or the US government’s involvement in the funding and support of covert torture centres in Iraq from 2003 to 2006; or the recent revelations from Edward Snowden about the activities of the US National Security Agency. Aside from covering up controversial policies, there is strong evidence that the US government has sought to deliberately propagandise both domestic and foreign audiences. Some relevant examples of covert influence include the Pentagon secretly paying retired generals to appear on television news and current affairs programs as ‘independent’ commentators, having provided them with synchronised talking points; and the Pentagon’s contract with the communications firm Lincoln Park to plant pro-US articles in Iraqi newspapers, while pretending they were written by ordinary Iraqis.

Likewise, this tension between rhetoric and practice has manifested in problematic credibility dynamics for the DOT. In an analysis of DOT activity following Barrack Obama’s Cairo Address in 2009, Khatib, Dutton, and Thelwall (2012) found that DOT posts generated extreme antagonism, which coalesced around cynicism about US foreign policy, and, in particular, its ulterior motives. These same issues are evident more recently in DOT activities aimed at undermining the standing of ISIS online disseminators. Organised around the hash-tag #thinkagainturnaway, the DOT has highlighted, for instance, that ISIS kills mainly Muslim people, is rejected by key Muslim scholars, and has presided over a ‘rape culture’, where women are forced into marriage or worse. However, the credibility of the DOT is undermined when the US government’s own record of foreign policy malpractice is evoked. Take, for instance, an exchange, recorded by Rita Katz (2014), were an ISIS user brought up the abhorrent physical and sexual degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison as a counter point to a DOT twitter posts about ISIS atrocities. Immediately, the credibility of the US government is called into question and its message weakened.

The shortcomings of the CMT and the DOT are highly relevant for Western governments considering similar online interventions in the context of ISIS radicalisation. A more promising approach that is now emerging in policy debates about online counter-radicalisation moves towards partnering with community groups, non-governmental organisations and private enterprise to facilitate counter narratives to ISIS messaging. The emphasis here is very much on developing capacities and competencies, rather than delivering content or strategic messaging. However, the key vulnerability of such programs will be the extent to which the involvement of government at any level taints the messenger. In the end, authenticity and connection are crucial in any counter-radicalisation policy, and programs that are centred on these values are more likely to be effective.

7 thoughts on “Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?

  1. Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?
    Islamic State poses a serious threat to international security and peace. Images from Syria and Iraq shows the horror along with the military conquest of large areas and cities demonstrates the regional threat IS poses. On an international level, one of IS successes has been to attract foreign fighters through online radicalisation and propaganda. The foreign fighters returns back to their home countries with military training along with a radicalised agenda of continuing jihad. As a result, countering Islamic State has not only been fought on a physical military battlefield but also online. Tim Aistrope has studied the present US-strategy for countering Islamic State online. He is critical of the US online countering IS projects because their aim is to use propaganda against IS, but they do not have the credibility from the audience that is necessary for the online countering programs to work sufficiently.

    This essay critically reviews Tim Aistrope’s blog post from 2016 on The Vision Machine, an online platform for scholars and people engaging with the intersection of war, peace, and media. I will argue that Tim Aistrope’s argument about the American government’s credibility in countering IS online is indeed one of the biggest challenges America has in counter Islamic State online but it is not the only issue the strategy has. Kathleen Bouzis research note on countering the IS shows how different interpretations of potential propaganda and counter propaganda can cause a negative outcome instead of the intended, but she also indicates that the strategy might have had success in some aspects. Aistrope suggest that the propaganda strategy against IS would be more successful if the Western governments partnered with NGO’s and local communities.
    To critically engage with that suggestion, I will include Jared Cohen who represents a different approach to what strategies could work countering IS online.

    Critical review:
    Tim Aistrope stresses that Islamic State has succeeded in creating a powerful narrative about tyranny, religious duty and adventures that attracts and radicalise people all around the world. According to Siboni, Cohen and Koren the use of extreme brutality and the use of cyberspace to spread messages and videos have been with the clear purpose of recruitment and intimidation (2015: 130). Yannick Veilleux-Lepage also emphases the shift in online jihadism that IS’s strategy represent (2016: 36). IS relies on countless unaffiliated supporters to effectively spread their propaganda on social media platforms (Veilleux-Lepage, 2016:43-44). Veilleux-Lepage further argues the beheading videos and online magazines show the use of highly sophisticated media skills appealing to a Western audience (2016: 41-42).

    As a response to IS’s effective media strategy, the Western countries have tried to counter IS online by different strategies. Aistrope focuses on two US State Departments programs named Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT), and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT). CMT tries to counter misinformation about the US it self, and DOT’s goal is to discredit Islamic State by creating a different narrative about IS that counter its legitimacy both religiously, socially and military. One of the initiatives is the #ThinkAgainTurnAway campaign on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. According to Aistrope, the campaign’s aim is to “undermining the standing of ISIS online disseminators” (2016: 1) by for an example posting videos on Youtube showing horrible images of everyday life under Islamic State (GEC, 2016).

    Aistrope studied the strategies and his main argument is that the US State Department programs do not have credibility to work sufficiently (2016: 1). Aistrope shows the tension between the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism shown in in the programs on one hand and on the other the Western military interventions in the Middle East and hereby the less democratic aspects of the ‘War on Terror’ (2016: 1). The tension is one of the reasons why US do not have credibility among the online audience the program tries to address (Aistrope, 2016: 1). Other reasons for the lack of US credibility covers involvement in regime change, torture, and expanded surveillance (Aistrope, 2016: 1).

    Tim Aistrope wants to emphasise the importance of looking at the shortcomings of the CMT and DOT programs. Especially if other Western governments are considering similar strategies to counter IS’s radicalisation online (Aistrope, 2016: 1). Instead of CMT and DOT he suggests a different approach that has been emerging in the debate lately. The new strategy focuses on cooperation with NGOs, community groups, and private companies (Aistrope, 2016: 1). Aistrope recognises that the same problem with credibility could raise even with the different approach if the audience feel like the government is too involved (Aistrope, 2016: 1). Nevertheless Aistrope argues that the most effective approach would be the use of programs who are more authentically and more connected with the audience than the US government for an example (2016: 1).

    Kathleen Bouzis also examines non-kinetic engagement including DOT and its #ThinkagainTurnaway initiative (2015: 888-894). She debates that the counterterrorism strategy that DOT represents might be successful in some aspects, but she also outlines the limitation given the fact that DOT can only work on open sites like Twitter and Facebook and not on more closed social platforms (Bouzis, 2015: 889). She argues that DOT’s number of likes on its Arabic Facebook-page indicates some success, and especially the strategy of posting Arabic news is working because it has more credibility for the audience (Bouzis, 2015: 889). However she agrees with Aistrope that there are important concerns with the strategy. She focuses more on how the strategy also can be counterproductive when people have different understandings of the posts, videos and pictures (Bouzis, 2015: 889).

    The new media age represent a different challenge for counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism strategies. Even though the US DOT-programme has many faults and does not work sufficient, it is still important to develop new strategies for countering terrorist groups online. Yet, as Aistrope also points out, the present strategy even with an expanded cooperation with communities, NGOs and so on would have difficulties countering Islamic State online. Jared Cohen suggests an online marginalization strategy to counter IS (2015). Cohen suggest that digital territory should be recaptured so that IS becomes unnoticeable online and forced to the dark Web (Cohen, 2015: 3). He advises that supporters should be separated from actual IS-fighters along with specific targeting of accounts connected with important IS members (Cohen, 2015: 3). Cohen agrees with Aistrope’s argument that governments should work with local communities just as in physical counterinsurgencies, but he also predict that machines in the future would be more developed to help identifying terrorists and terror group propaganda and that the machines therefore would be more effective (Cohen, 2015:4). Veilleux-Lepage also argues that military responses against Islamic State are not enough to counter them (2016: 46). He claims that it might have been the biggest mistake in the ‘War on Terror’ strategy to believe that military destruction of Al Qaeda would take away the problems with radical jihadists (Veilleux-Lepage, 2016: 46). It is the message of the jihadists that should be countered through a well coordinated approach between Western countries along with countries in the Islamic World and local Muslim communities (Veilleux-Lepage, 2016: 46).

    But maybe both Aistrope’s, Veilleux-Lepage’s or Cohen’s comments on how to counter IS online is not enough to avoid IS’s propaganda to radicalise people and threaten the West. If it is the message it self that should be dealt with, it might be time to look more inside. Why does IS’ message of the attract Western men and women? If young Muslim men and woman where less marginalised and better integrated in Western countries Islamic State would have a harder time recruiting foreign fighters. And even though Islamic State’s media strategy covers more areas than recruiting, it could be an important step to countering IS online.

    Tim Aistrope’s main argument is that the US strategy to counter Islamic State online does not work because America lacks credibility given several years of war in the Middle East along with the use of non-democratic means. Besides credibility, the propaganda against Islamic State can also backfire because people interpretative the message differently from what is intended. Altogether, countering Islamic State online has proven difficult, and other strategies like marginalising IS online could be more useful. In addition it might also be time to look at integration systems to see how it is possible to avoid Muslim people from being marginalised in the West and hereby avoid that they become a target for IS’s propaganda.

    Aistrope, Tim. 2016. Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?. The Vision Machine – Media, war and Peace. Posted March 28. 2006. Accessed 5 October 16.

    Bouzis, Kathleen. 2015. Countering the Islamic State: U.S. Counterterrorism Measures, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38:10, 885-897, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2015.1046302

    Cohen, Daniel, Koren, Tal, Siboni, Gabi. 2015. The Islamic State’s Strategy in Cyperspace. Military and Strategic Affairs 7(1) (March): 127-144,

    Cohen, Jared. 2015. Digital counterinsurgency: How to marginalize the islamic state online. Foreign Affairs 94, (6) (Nov): 52-58,

    Global Engagement Center (GEC). 2016. Life Under Daesh – Violence. Global Engagement Center Youtube-channel. Posted April 15. 2016. Accessed 18 October 16.

    Veilleux-Lepage, Y. 2016. Paradigmatic Shifts in Jihadism in Cyberspace: The Emerging Role of Unaffiliated Sympathizers in Islamic State’s Social Media Strategy. Journal of Terrorism Research, 7(1), 36–51. DOI:

  2. POLS3512 Critical Blog
    Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?
    Due to the transformation of information technology and emergence of new media, asymmetric conflicts with non-state armed groups such as ISIS have become significant. ISIS’s promotion with social media has successfully gained and radicalised Western citizens as their supporters. This essay will focus on the spot light, Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?, by Tim Aistrope on The Vision Machine (2016) discussing counter ISIS strategies through social media by states. The main argument of the spotlight is that it is more effective strategy that develop capacities and competencies to facilitate counter narratives to massages by ISIS through cooperating to community group, non-governmental organisations and private companies rather than countering ISIS online with states’ social media accounts which challenge ISIS narratives. This paper will critically review the spot light with literature and develop the main argument with its weaknesses and possible recommendations of them.
    Aistrope (2016) raises the CMT and DOT activities as an example of failed strategies. The main problem of these strategies is a contradiction between rhetoric and practice in the War on Ideas. For example, although they emphasise atrocities of ISIS, there are covert activities that the US government does not mention. It makes reliability and credibility of them questionable and sceptical. In order to overcome this limitation, cooperating with other groups and organisation is effective to develop capacities and competencies against ISIS. Cronin (2015: 92-93) also points out failure of the US strategy, publicising errors and violent activities of ISIS in order to delegitimise them. The reason of it was explained as due to the different core messages between al-Qaeda and ISIS, the strategy used to al-Qaeda was not effective; since ISIS’s core message is raw power and revenge rather than legitimacy, spread of their brutality, cruelty and violence actually helped it (Cronin 2015: 92-93). Through a lack of credibility and reliability of the sources and a greater influence of ISIS in social media, they have gained Western citizens as their supporters. To degrade ISIS, reducing their company by preventing foreign citizens to be a member of ISIS is also an important aspect. In terms of the main point of the argument, the United States recognises the importance of cooperation and developing capabilities in a counter terrorism strategy. According to Esfandiary and Tabatabai (2016: 3), the United States plans counter terrorism capabilities in order to prevent ISIS aggression, which also includes contesting against their ideology and stopping foreign fighters to be an ISIS member. As reported by Acosta (2016), the Obama administration had a meeting with executives from private enterprises “Apple, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and MTV” for seeking their support in counter ISIS on social media. For example, Apple helps the administration by the use of encryption in order to protect data on smart phones of customers. Apart from that, Fidler (2015) observes that the government needs to clearly identify their counter terrorism measures to the private enterprises and also the private enterprises should explain the policies based on content against terrorist groups for partnering with other groups. Overall, delivering cruel and violent contents of ISIS does not work well as a counter ISIS strategy, and cooperating to other groups in social media with discussion on aims is more effective for counter terrorism.
    However, there is a counter-evidence which shows partnering with other groups did not work. Klein and Flinn (2016: 2) illustrate that although some terrorists used social media such as Facebook to show their pledge or allegiance to ISIS, there was a time gap between Facebook removing the accounts as breaking their rules and the government being notified it by the company. As a result, they killed civilians. In this case, cooperation with the private companies could not prevent a citizen supporting ISIS and killing other people. ISIS uses public Internet sites such as YouTube, Google, Twitter and Facebook in order to spread their propaganda, get followers and even provide weapon training (Klein and Flinn 2016: 18). There are difficulties with effectiveness of the strategy. Firstly, ISIS also uses private communication tools such as WhatsApp, Kik, Surespot, Skype, and Telegram for recruitment, planning and implementation; this shift deepens radicalisation and makes controlling over them more difficult (Klein and Flinn 2016: 15). Secondly, though Twitter publicised “closing of over 125,000 accounts of “suspected terrorists” since 2015”, how it determines “suspected terrorists” whether they actually should be shut up, and monitors these accounts are questionable (Klein and Flinn 2016: 19-20). Furthermore, self-censorship of private companies seems not really effective; in the United States, nearly half of ISIS-related arrests used Facebook even after it regulated ISIS-related accounts (Klein and Flinn 2016: 20). In other words, the censorship by the government is still required besides the self-censorship by the private companies. From these points, cooperating with private sector and other groups could not be said as an effective social media strategy for counter ISIS.
    Indeed, it would be a great strategy when these weaknesses are overcome. For example, establishing and publicising a clear guideline of distinguishing “suspected terrorists” and ISIS-related accounts would solve the problem as it would not stimulate and be opposed by the public. Apart from that, a higher quality of censorship system among the government and private enterprises including private communication tools’ should be established for sharing information, so that suspicious people would become more visible. Utilisation of metadata also could help it. In addition, Klausen (2015: 12-13) mentions about the use of social media by Western fighters in Syria and Iraq; there are some disgusting pictures posted on Twitter from the war zone. Advising them to post with moral might reduce this kind of picture which might be supportive towards ISIS. In short, they are possible recommendations which might overcome weaknesses from a current system of cooperating with other groups. The balance between security and privacy, free expression would be also important.
    In conclusion, the spotlight discusses the problems of countering ISIS online with social media; there is the contradiction between what states say and what states have done. It generates a decrease in reliability and credibility of the sources states provided. Aistrope (2016) notes the importance of cooperating with community groups, NGOs and private companies. However, there are limitations of this strategy and the states and private companies of social media are still struggling with ISIS and violent ISIS-related accounts. The argument of the spotlight is, therefore, restated as that cooperating with community group, NGOs and private enterprises with a higher quality of censorship among them in order to share the information and clear explanation of its border between “suspected terrorists” would be more effective as a counter ISIS strategy than delivering strategic messages. Not reliability and credibility to lose again, clear explanation of the system to the public and ensuring their free expression under the rules would be necessary for the strategy. As the information technology is developing and the ISIS’s technology is also developing, states have to deal with them by up-to-date strategies. Indeed, cooperation between states, community groups and private companies is effective for opposing ISIS radicalisation and winning the ‘War of Ideas’.

    Acosta, Jim. 2016. First on CNN: Government enlists tech giants to fight ISIS messaging. Accessed 26 October 2016. Available at
    Aistrope, Tim. 2016. Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?. Accessed 26 October 2016. Available at
    Cronin, Audrey Kurth. 2015. ‘ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group: Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat’. Foreign Affairs 94(2): 87-98.
    Esfandiary, Dina and Ariane M. Tabatabai. 2016. ‘A Comparative
    Study of U.S. and Iranian Counter-ISIS Strategies’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism: 1-15.
    Fidler, David P. 2015. Countering Islamic State Exploitation of the Internet. Accessed 26 October 2016. Available at
    Klausen, Jytte. 2015. ‘Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq’. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38(1): 1-22.
    Klein, Susan R. and Crystal M. Flinn. 2016. ‘Social Media Compliance Programs and the War Against Terrorism’. Forthcoming in The Harvard National Security Journal (8): 1-62. Available at

  3. As the tragic theatre of war continues to play out in the Battle for Mosul: Part Deux, some questions become unavoidable. How did we get here? How did ISIS manage to take Mosul in the first place? Are we doing enough to stop the surge of ISIS? Tim Aistrope advances a compelling argument on the efficacy of online counter-radicalisation programs in the US government. Citing evidence of the shortcomings in US public diplomacy programs such as the Counter Misinformation Team (now terminated) and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), Aistrope argues that tensions in foreign policy rhetoric and practices reduce the legitimacy and authenticity of such programs, and concludes that without credibility these programs are limited in their efficacy. While the argument correctly highlights the importance of perceived credibility, the broadness of the discussion on structural tensions in rhetoric and practice is questionable. This paper will first emphasise the strategic imperatives facing the U.S. and other Western governments, and will develop Aistrope’s assertion of the critical importance of the narrative space in public diplomacy. Second, it will be argued that, given the scope for improvement of US counter-radicalisation programs like DOT, the contradictions in foreign policy, as described by Aistrope, are inevitable and don’t play as pivotal a role as suggested for the overall efficacy against ISIS and other non-state actors.


    In June 2014 ISIS forces descended on the city of Mosul, Iraq where defending Iraqi soldiers waited, outnumbering them 15-1. Beyond the convoys of utes and armed teenagers a parallel Twitter hashtag campaign was launched: #ALLEyesonISIS. This campaign disseminated images of ISIS brutality and barbarity and conveyed a narrative of the inevitable seizure of the city. Such was the pervasiveness and power of the campaign that despite their dominant numbers, the defending forces soon disintegrated and fled (Brookings, Emmerson and Singer, 2016: 61). ISIS has since employed social media to eliminate geographical boundaries and bring its war to the international online community.

    The rise of social media, or “Web 2.0”, has significantly affected the dynamics of asymmetric warfare, most frequently in favour of the insurgent. The Web 2.0 is being commoditized by insurgents like ISIS for more effective warfare, whether as a tool to amplify small scale acts of violence into large scale psychological weapons, or broadening the scope for radicalisation and recruitment. A Clausewitzian perspective on war highlights the inalienable link between the populace, politics and the military, wherein the population provides a state’s military with both material and psychological support (Rid and Hecker, 2009: 124-126). Academics such as Roger Stahl stress an even deeper participation of the population in today’s interactive war. As part of a greater generalised cultural condition, Stahl argues that a “virtual war” is occurring that recruits and mobilises citizens as military objects (Stahl, 2010: 48). This virtual war extends beyond the online communities of insurgents and into the home of every online citizen. Lessons in Mosul have taught Western armed forces that media, both old and new, are now a permanent feature of 21st century conflict and must be tackled as any other military strategic imperative. The online “counter narrative” serves as a critical weapon for retaliation against ISIS and other non-state actors, by mobilising its own virtual soldiers and reducing the capacity for recruitment and radicalisation.


    The imperative for governments to project a credible and authentic narrative is championed by many strategists and leaders. In June 2015 an internal memo addressed to Secretary Kerry by Under-Secretary Richard Stengel advocated the need to readdress the issue of counter narratives. “When it comes to the external message, our narrative is being trumped by ISIL’s. We are reactive – we think about “counter-narratives” not “our narrative”” (Stengel, 2015). Here the distinction calls for a reflection on whether an authentic US identity is being portrayed in the narrative disseminated by the State Department. Stengel approaches Aistrope’s idea of contradiction obliquely, saying that “the coalition [to fight ISIS through coordinated message] does not communicate well internally or externally”. Clearly then, the counter narrative faces challenges that include tensions between foreign policy and practice. However, the undeniable strategic imperative of a counter narrative warrants a deconstruction of the broadly defined “tensions” that Aistrope argues limit the efficacy of programs like the Digital Outreach Team.

    Aistrope’s consistent focus on the “tension between rhetoric and practice” of US foreign policy obfuscates the function of programs like the DOT (Aistrope, 2016: 127). By setting the scope of his analysis as broadly as contradictions or “tensions”, he inflates the problem to an insurmountable size beyond actionable solutions. It appears fruitless to dilute the problem into non-specifics. The countless moving parts of the US government machine all but guarantee some incidence of contradictions between policy and practice. Additionally, while the War on Terror has produced countless examples of US policy malpractice, anti-American sentiment has far deeper roots beyond contradictions – encompassing fears of globalisation, anti-imperialism, rejection of American totality, anti-Semitism or occupation of holy sites (O’Connor, 2004: 78).

    Nonetheless, broad systemic challenges do little to excuse the quality of the content provided by DOT. The content provided by the Digital Outreach Team demonstrates enormous scope for improvement in quality and tone. Examples in response to pro-ISIS comments seen on are snarky, pugilistic and unconvincing (Knibbs, 2015). A further look to their social media accounts shows limited presence. While DOT’s Facebook page has over 400,000 likes, and its Twitter account has 6221 followers (and an enviable 20 likes), other popular platforms such as Instagram have only 117 photos and 26 followers. Evidently, the extent of engagement in popular social media could be increased.

    The tensions undermining the State Department’s credibility have some parallels in the public relations challenges facing any local or national police force. When providing recommendations to the Australian government for its own anti-radicalisation programs, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute offered a successful example in the NSW Police Force Facebook page. Through its use of humour and public service announcements the page has gained a significant following (668,884 likes) but more critically, it is engaging with the target demographic of those vulnerable to radicalisation (Richardson, 2013). The NSW Police Force was able to negate the need to juggle their entire history and actions through simply targeting an audience with a tailored message that is consistent and credible to them.


    In just over two years since the Fall of Mosul the struggle for a compelling counter-narrative has become an even more critical strategic consideration of 21st century warfare. Web 2.0 is playing a deeper part in the theatre of war than ever before. Even in the last week a new form of war reporting media has emerged with Snapchat publishing “The Battle for Mosul” with videos of young Kurds and Iraqi soldiers in selfie videos on the battle field (Mashable, 2016). It remains to be seen whether these Snaps will help contribute to an effective counter narrative against ISIS, but it is evidently a further medium in which the State Department can direct narrative building. Aistrope and the author can agree that the public voice of the government like DOT remains essential to provide a distinguishable portrayal of legitimacy and credibility between the state and non-state actors such as ISIS. However, Aistrope is too broad in highlighting contradictions between policy and practice, and has either oversimplified issues such as anti-Americanism or overshadowed other contributing problems with achievable solutions. It is perhaps more meaningful to turn attentions away from intractable systemic problems and instead focus on targeted solutions, following the example of the NSW Police Force. Specifically, in the case of DOT, improvements to content can be easily improved and will need to be continually refined as its effectiveness is assessed (Moore et al. 2016). A push to innovate, engage and collaborate more aggressively with social media platforms is also an obvious area for improvement. Beyond social media, the State Department can hope to extend and diversify the counter narrative to broader audiences through the help of Hollywood after meetings earlier this year (The Economist, 2016). Further opportunities for collaboration exist in the near future for governments and online communities such as “International Troll ISIS Day” on December 11th (Brookings, Emmerson and Singer, 2016: 61). The steps needed to improve the crucially important counter narrative are clearly numerous and involve participation beyond the US State Department. However, with these few achievable improvements the “counter narrative” can ultimately become “our narrative” and our best chance at defeating ISIS.

    Aistrope, Tim. 2016. ‘Social Media and Counterterrorism Strategy’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 70(2): 121-138.
    Brooking, Emmerson and P.W. Singer. 2016. ‘The War of Social Media: ISIS Goes Viral – and the World’. Popular Science 288(2): 60-61.
    Flynn, Kerry. 2016. ‘Snapchat Wants to Show More Breaking News Stories’. Mashable. (accessed October 25, 2016).
    Knibbs, Kate. 2015. ‘The State Department Tried to Fight ISIS on and It Didn’t Go Well’. Gizmodo. (accessed October 20, 2016).
    Moore, C.L. et al. 2016. Maneuver and Engagement in the Narrative Space (Strategic Multilayer Assessment White Paper). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
    O’Connor, Brendon. 2004. ‘A Brief History of Anti-Americanism: From Cultural Criticism to Terrorism’. Australasian Journal of American Studies 23(1): 77-92.
    Richardson, Roslyn. 2013. Fighting Fire with Fire: Target Audience Responses to Online Anti-Violence Campaigns. Canberra: ASPI: 10-24.
    Rid, Thomas, and Marc Hecker. 2009. War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age. Westport, Conneticut: Praeger Security International: 124-207.
    Stahl, Roger. 2010. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge: 21-48. 
    Stengel, Richard. 2015. Note for the Secretary (Internal Memo). United States Department of State
    The Economist. 2016. ‘To Combat Islamic State Propoganda, Hollywood Needs Broader Perspectives’, The Economist (Online). (accessed October 19, 2016).

  4. Tim Aistrope in his text ‘Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?’ discusses non-state armed groups and State media strategy. By highlighting the disconnect between State driven rhetoric and foreign policy practice, it questions the viability of countering extremist narratives online. It discusses the lack of credibility and efficiency of two counter-extremism programs run by the US State Department, the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and Digital Outreach Team (DOT). Aistrope argues that in order to successfully undermine radicalisation narratives, online interventions need to overcome this challenge of credibility by focusing on authenticity and connection instead. Aistrope presents a discussion that is both relevant, realistic and applicable. Through the use of limited evidence, due to the limited scope and length of the work, he persuasively showcases the challenges faced by the programs to create a convincing counter- narratives.

    Aistrope presents a number of key points throughout the text that is supported by carefully selected examples. Firstly, Aistrope addresses the current nature of the “relationship between new media and asymmetric warfare” (Aistrope 2016), thereby highlighting the relevance of his argument to the discourse. In starting off with the way in which the relationship between media and war has transformed such that media is now a medium of war partly sets the scope of analysis. That is, where everyday people can, and have, become proponents of the War of Ideas and participants in the battle for hearts and minds.

    Aistrope identifies that Western government responses to undermine radicalisation have largely taken place online, through social media. However, he posits that “…there are good reasons to be sceptical about this approach” (Aistrope 2016). In elaborating on this notion, he introduces the crux of the now discontinued CMT, and DOT programs as being the “recurring issue of credibility.” Aistrope builds his case by drawing attention to the tension between rhetoric and practice. This tension magnifies and reinforces negative connotations, confirming sentiments of “hypocrisy, duplicity and propaganda” (Aistrope 2016) for those active online.

    Aistrope discredits the CMT by using its own source reliability criteria and turning it back on itself to highlight its weak attempt at propaganda. Additionally, he points to instances of “covert influence” where the Pentagon has used money or undue influence both in a domestic and international setting. Aistrope uses the same basis of reasoning to discredit the DOT as well through the case study of the Barrack Obama Cairo Address in 2009, by analysing the results of the #thinkagainturnaway campaign and drawing attention to tweets that mention atrocities by the United States as counterpoints. In concluding the text, the author’s purpose and intention become clear through the exploration of alternative approaches and by emphasising the importance for governments to learn from the mistakes of the CMT and DOT.

    The text argues that online interventions, in order to successfully undermine pro-ISIS narratives, need to focus on credibility by focusing on authenticity and connection. The text is significant in that it builds on other works in the field. However, there are a number of key things that may not have fit within the scope of the work that could have added to its impact. Its impact, as a whole, while important, is rather understated. In essence, a larger punch could have been delivered in its critique of state-driven online interventions.

    Its approach through the use of current examples, however, stands tall to carefully balance and support each point. Additionally, the validity and reliability of the argument are increased via the linking of examples of the DOT program. The structure is clear and well organised, and the writing style is clear. Nonetheless, whilst the message is convincing in the way it is conveyed, it fails to further explore further details of the discourse that could have contributed to the overall argument. However, no real damaging counter-evidence exists to suggest that the argument is false or even suspect. The emphasis of this critique will lie on the DOT.

    Whilst the text is US-centric, it fails to compare and contrast other programs outside of the US State Department, which may have strengthened its findings and provided a fresh perspective. Nonetheless, the notion that counter-messaging and disruption, as the initial effort, is key is widely supported in the discourse (Berger 2016: 3). If negative perceptions about ISIS are raised, participants can be influenced to disband (Berger 2016: 3). Whilst DOT may not yet operate on the majority of social media platforms, ISIS does. It mainly engages on “, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, PalTalk, kik, viper,, and Tumblr” (Klausen 2015: 1). Increasing content across platforms increases potential reach. However, Khatib et al. clarifies that “DOT judges its own work by saying ‘If we’re not there, we’re not making any difference,’ even if this leads to more anti-US posts” (2012: 468).

    Whilst social media usage by ISIS may often come across as authentic and have a sense of carelessness about it, it is important not to underestimate the tightly managed behind the scenes component that meticulously controls what is said and how it is said (Klausen 2015: 2). Whilst this attention to detail may currently be mirrored by DOT, especially in its thorough fact-checking process, the tone used to portray the message needs to reflect its goal and the medium. Currently, DOT messaging predominantly utilises a hard-lined tone that may alienate and disengage its audience, this is reflected in the image of the tweet shown as an example by Aistrope.

    If “more time, energy, and attention toward countering” the pro-ISIS narrative is not invested by the United States, its dominance will continue to grow (Al-‘Ubaydi 2014: 89). However, Western media also has a role to play. It currently fails to highlight failures of ISIS to discredit its image (Al-‘Ubaydi 2014: 69). In providing an alternative perspective (Ingham 2015: 730) to the conflict, ISIS manages to portray that which the sanitised Western media fails to do, show ‘real-life’ depictions of current affairs. Its message therefore not only resonates with its glocal audience, but it elevates, and even empowers, the point of indoctrination to one of action (Ingham 2015: 730).

    ISIS combines psychological insight with high-production (Seib 2014). Seib (2014) contends that the counter-ISIS narrative would be better handled by the CIA, due to its higher budget yet lower profile. Tactics such as engaging the Muslim community in denouncing pro-ISIS narratives may still do little to increase US credibility (Seib 2014). However, as pointed out by Krebs, “there is little disagreement in Washington that the United States is losing the so-called Battle of Ideas” (2008: 332). The “propaganda campaign” of ISIS “plays an important role in crafting its current perception of steady, inevitable forward progress” (Al-‘Ubaydi 2014: 89). If this dominance continues, it will become increasingly more difficult to counter (Al-‘Ubaydi 2014: 89).

    Current DOT campaigns have yet to change their format, it is therefore high time to “invest more heavily in counter-ISIS information campaigns” (Sorenson 2014: 26). In this sense, covert operations should not be underestimated. Sorenson reinforces the argument that “anti-ISIS messages do not need American ownership” (2014: 34). “The State Department seal is used whenever possible as the avatar of the DOT users” (Khatib 2012: 456). Additionally, members of DOT need to state who they are when posting, creating another clear association with the US (Khatib 2012: 457). Aistrope’s work lacks a discussion of covert State approaches, which may provide an ‘easy fix’ to the credibility issue. The DOT criteria, Aistrope rightly identified, differs to that which we analyse the program by.

    Outsourcing the counter-ISIS narrative may reap positive benefits. It is clear that alternative plans are ready for implementation, as elucidated by Sorenson, campaigns need to “be designed to evoke dialogue over monologue by encouraging Muslims to discuss and implement religious prohibitions on ISIS ideation” (2014: 34). Whilst this statement may make generalisations on who the audience of ISIS’ messaging may be, it does present the idea that education is important. The main point, however, is that we are aware of what to do, but it is yet to be done by the State.

    Aistrope presents a relevant and interesting perspective on the viability of countering extremist narratives online. The text is likely to be useful for those wanting an engaging and quick, yet thorough, understanding of how the US State Department is presenting a counter-ISIS narrative on social media. It provides a new interpretation of a somewhat mature debate on the challenges currently facing DOT. Henceforth, it provides an easily comprehensible argument that is still detailed through the use of convincing snippets of evidence. The conclusions of the text are final and convincing, and will hopefully lead to reform.

    Reference List

    Al-‘Ubaydi, M., N. Lahoud, D. Milton, and B. Price. 2014. ‘The Group That Calls Itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State’ West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center

    Berger, J. 2016. ‘Promoting Disengagement from Violent Extremism’ The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 7(5): 1-13

    Khatib, L. Dutton, W. Thelwall, M. 2012. ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0: A Case Study of the US Digital Outreach Team’ The Middle East Journal 66(3): 453-472

    Klausen, J. 2015. ‘Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38(1): 1-22

    Krebs, R., 2008. ‘Rethinking the battle of ideas: How the United States can help Muslim moderates’ Orbis, 52(2): 332-346.

    Seib, P. ‘Counterterrorism Messaging Needs to Move From State to CIA’ DefenseOne, 27 October 2014. Accessed 20 October 2016. Available online:

    Sorenson, D. 2014. ‘Priming Strategic Communications: Countering the Appeal of ISIS’ Parameters 44(3): 25-36

  5. Can States Counter ISIS Through Social Media?

    The evolution of technology has shifted the struggle of warfare to a new paradigm. Today, the movement of insurgency is no longer constrained to radio and television as its medium; it has expanded to social media as a new platform that has a larger network and reaches individuals with much closer, personal interaction. When Al Qaeda first made its video of beheading civilian, there was no YouTube or Twitter to grant people the power to share things instantly (Talbot 2015: 75). It relied on news organizations like Al Jazeera to publicize its statements. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on the other hand, was born during the era of social media (Talbot 2015: 7). Social media, especially Twitter, has been fully utilized by ISIS to lure people into becoming new members. According to a report by J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, there were approximately “46,000 users in October-November 2014” that aided the campaign on Twitter alone (Zalkind 2015).

    Thus, in the face of these new developments, the state has no other choice than to elevate its strategies by taking it to social media platforms too. However, in the article entitled ‘Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?’, Tim Aistrope argues that many of these strategies are ineffective in managing the spread of ISIS in social media (Aistrope 2016). Presenting the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) as one of the examples, Tim wrote that the program -which has now been terminated – was struggling with “sanctioned illegality and official deception” of United States (US) with regards to its foreign policies. Plus, the United States (US) has been suspected to have its own agenda based on their employment of deceitful acts to audiences. Aistrope also brings up the Digital Outreach Team (DOT) as another evidence for his argument. The attack of US government on ISIS was once again countered back by its own immorality in the case of Abu Ghraib prison. Hence, the credibility of state is being undermined by its hypocrisy with regards to their foreign practices.

    Aistrope’s argument of how the state is hardly successful when it comes to countering insurgents’ online presence is supported by other scholars. In another article written by Rid and Hecker, the asymmetric warfare for insurgents is described as way less complicated than it is for the state (2009: 131). In the media realm, the insurgent has the advantage of striking first, while the state reacts. In an example of an event where the insurgents launch an attack towards an innocent civilian, the state often face difficulties in delivering quick response. This is because before a response can be made public, the information has to undergo rigorous process first in order to ensure its validity. However, the public and reporters want quick details, and providing a later response particularly in a world run by social media only slows down the efficiency of state.

    Plus, ISIS has been interacting directly with the public by making one-to-one conversation with individuals – thanks to their decentralized approach. This results in a more effective campaign compared to what states can offer. Many of the campaign are done by ISIS’s own fanatic followers, who produce their own content and spread it. A researcher in University of Waterloo, Amarmath Amarasingam mentioned that fighters of ISIS come from 80 to 90 countries (Talbot 2015: 74), and four out of five followers speak in languages other than English (Zalkind 2015). This huge diversity aided their connection with people, as they are closer to the knowledge of culture and languages globally. Many of the youth pulled into this extremism are also mostly being fed with themes of “sisterhood” and “brotherhood”. Social media research has shown that “messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising” (Talbot 2015: 76).

    However, unlike ISIS, the state has been using a ‘one-way broadcast’ approach, instead of a personal engagement (Talbot 2015: 74). A lot of programs and projects launched by state in so far have no element of targeting a specific group of people. One of the examples is “Quick Fiqh”, which is an app where youths can ask questions regarding Sharia law within 60 seconds, and get answers from renowned Islamic scholars (Talbot 2015: 76). These efforts are directed towards general Muslim community, and are not specifically targeting a group of people who show support to radical movement. Moreover, the state carries the campaign as work-related, which often leads to a formal approach. Hence, the campaign launches on Twitter under the #thinkagainturnaway sounds more news-like rather than casual and engaging (Ackerman 2014).

    With revelation of all these shortcomings, another question remains; what could have been done better? In his article, Aistrope did a great job in identifying the underlying problem of state’s strategy in countering ISIS presence on social media. However, he could make the article more interesting by providing solutions for the state. For example, Lieber and Reily have suggested that state will need to use a traditional approach in seemingly modern platform and revisit the basis of influence operations (2016: 5). This is because although ISIS is a newly-born social movement, it still practices the same concept that has been used by any other ideological social movement before. Therefore, state shall apply qualitative and quantitative mechanisms in measuring the attitude and opinions that drives the behavior of youth to join ISIS (Lieber, Reiley 2016: 7). The target population must also not be too broad in order to reduce the likelihood of incorrect result. The result of both mechanisms will help states to identify the underlying problems and focus on the real primary group that requires attention.

    The failure of state’s strategy has been given much focus by many scholars, and finding one that proves otherwise is hard. As the warfare takes on a new realm, it is safe to say that the state is still learning to counter this terrorism through social media. Perhaps state may not be able to counter ISIS in spreading its influence completely; however, states can use social media to counter ISIS militarily. A few evidences have shown that state has been learning fast about ISIS movements through social media. Computer analysts have been able to recognize its pattern through “non-specific indicators” (Tadjdeh 2014: 26). For example, the post made by ISIS on social media has allowed states to strike an attack on the building where ISIS militant gathered (Austin 2015). In his speech, Hawk Carlisle who is the Head of Air Combat Command described how his men identified a comment on a social media forum to be of ISIS’ members. He continued by saying,

    “So they do some work, long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three JDAMS (Joint Direct Attack Munition) take that entire building out. Through social media. It was a post on social media. Bombs on target in 22 hours.” (Austin, 2015)

    Plus, Lewis believes that the amount of information gathered through social media will be increasing, which provides a positive outlook for military strategy (Tadjdeh 2014: 6). Thus, although state has been unable to counter ISIS presence effectively, states may learn to use social media more efficiently as a military advantage.

    As a conclusion, Aistrope has delivered a clear argument of how state is ineffective in countering ISIS through social media. His argument has been supported by many other scholars, which makes it even more convincing. The strategies are failing due to state hypocrisy with regards to its foreign policies. States is also at disadvantage since the insurgents possess the capability of striking first with less risk. Another reason for the failure is due to its ‘one-way broadcast’ approach, while the insurgents use personal engagement approach. However, all of these shortcomings can be improved by conducting quantitative and qualitative mechanisms. As this is a new warfare, it is safe to conclude that state is still learning from its failure, and perhaps can focus on using it as military advantage at the moment.

    Ackerman, S. (2014, September 22). Isis’s online propaganda outpacing US counter-efforts, ex-officials warn. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from The Guardian:

    Aistrope, T. (2016, March 28). Can States Counter ISIS Through Social Media. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from The Vision Machine Media War Peace:

    Austin, E. (2015, June 8). ISIS Social Media Post Enables Airstrike Targeting . Forensic Magazine . United States: Advantage Business Media.

    Gordon, M. M. (2015, June 13). U.S. Sees Failure in Fighting ISIS on Social Media. . New York , United States: The New York Times Company .

    Hecker, T. R. (2009). War 2.0 : irregular warfare in the information age. Westport, Conn. : Praeger Security International.

    Reiley, P. S. (2016, January). Countering ISIS’s Social Media Influence. Special Operations Journal, 2(1), 47-57.

    Tadjdeh, Y. (2014). Government, Industry Countering Islamic State’s Social Media Campaign . National Defense, 24-26.

    Talbot, D. (2015, Nov-Dec). Fighting ISIS online. Technology Review, 118(6), 72-77.

    Zalkind, S. (2015, June 22). How ISIS’s ‘Attack America’ Plan Is Working. The Daily Beast. New York, New York , United States: The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC.

  6. POLS3512 Blog

    In the technological age of globalization that is the 21st century, images, videos and stories can go viral on social media in an instant, and be seen all over the world, by multiple races, ages, genders and ethnicities. The terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have harnessed this ever-developing technology to their advantage, and to the growing alarm of Western state governments and citizens. In an article by Dr Tim Aistrope, the question of whether states can counter the propaganda and radicalization that is being spread by ISIS through social media is raised (2016). This is a question that many state counter-terrorism organizations are asking themselves, and is a fundamental facet to the fight against the ISIS-led jihadist narrative that is extending further around the world. In the article by Dr Aistrope, he expands on why there is good reason to be sceptical about the proficiency and capability of current anti-radicalization programs to succeed. In this critical analysis I will be identifying the main argument of Dr Aistrope, discuss whether it is a strong and convincing case, recognize areas that could potentially be improved, and evaluate any counter-evidence that could weaken the central argument.

    In the short and succinct article, Dr Aistrope discusses a number of facets pertaining to whether ISIS could potentially be defeated by state government counter-measures. His central hypothesis is that while there is action that can be taken to counter propaganda produced by ISIS online, many of the measures involve state governments, and there is significant reason to be ambivalent about the success of these programs, due to the main issue of credibility, or lack thereof. Dr Aistrope discusses measures that have been applied recently, such as creating narratives that counter and challenge ISIS propaganda, in an attempt to undermine further radicalization and mobilization of potential Western foreign fighters. He delves into two specific examples of state-run programs of the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), both run by the US government. As Dr Aistrope discusses, the scepticism about these programs mainly occurred from the contradiction between rhetoric and practice of democracy and liberal idealism. He lists the many instances in which not only jihadists question US transparency, but US and global citizens as well. Dr Aistrope concludes by offering the alternative strategy of partnering with community groups to create counter narratives to ISIS, focusing more on capacities than purely spreading content online.

    Much literature has been written on extremist groups and terrorist organizations, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, and in light of this literature, it is clear that the argument of Dr Aistrope’s article is legitimate and a global concern. Not only has ISIS proved to be the most effective radical organization to utilize new media, but it exploits social media on multiple platforms to disseminate the message of religious duty and the allure of becoming a jihadist (Ryan 2014: 1). As a learning organization, IS has studied and expanded on al Qaeda’s media strategies, to great avail – a more targeted demographic on multiple social media has emerged. IS has utilized Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to great success, not only spreading messages on them constantly, but also actively engaging in features such as hashtags to further exploit the media and promote their agenda (Farwell 2014: 51). Further evidence of the success of IS’ media strategy is the number of foreign fighters that are being mobilized through social media, and leaving their Western lives to convert to the jihad way of life in Syria and Iraq (Malet 2015: 454). This shows sufficient evidence to prove that Dr Aistrope’s thesis is correct in stating that current government actions to counter-IS social media strategies are not working, as the number of foreign fighters continues growing.

    As Dr Aistrope’s piece is not an academic article going into detail, it has to be succinct, but also clear enough so that anyone wishing to read about the subject could do so. I believe the argument was well conveyed for the length it was. The only improvements I would make include adding evidence from states attempting to counter ISIS apart from the US. In the beginning of the article, Dr Aistrope discusses ‘Western governments’ that are seeking to counter ISIS online presence by putting pressure on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but throughout the rest of the article, only gives examples of US counter strategies. While the CMT and DOT programs are evidently large undertakings against ISIS, many other countries are also implementing counter-strategies, through social media and in other ways, such as partnering with communities and non-governmental groups (Barrell, Harris-Hogan and Zammit 2016: 7-8), like the ones discussed in the conclusion of Dr Aistrope’s article. For example, countering violent extremism (CVE) policies in Australia recently included approximately $18 million being provided to combat online propaganda from ISIS and other terrorist groups (Attorney-General for Australia 2015). Another area that could be improved is that the article mainly discusses shortcomings of the US programs, as opposed to also looking at the ways in which the US programs achieved their goal, however minor it would seem to be, and then extended on that to explore ways to enhance this.

    Regarding whether or not the conveyed message is possibly incorrect or suspect, I have found much evidence that highlights the same argument as that in the article – that ISIS has a slick and sophisticated media strategy and team, and that this is a near-impossible commodity for Western countries to counter purely through social media means. However, I believe that is it also important to realise that, instead of just focusing on attempting to fight the figurative ‘hydra’ head of ISIS on social media, attempts can be made to use their own social media against them. In 2015, US air forces combing through ISIS social media found an upload by an ISIS member of a command station, and from there was able to trace the location and bomb it within 22 hours (Hoffman 2015: 1).

    Dr Aistrope’s article raises valid points about the ability of state governments to change online narratives perpetuated by ISIS, in direct contrast with programs that have been created on a rocky foundation of foreign policy malpractice. I agree with Dr Aistrope that the future focus should not purely be on attempting to utilize initiatives that are clearly not working, and will continue to fail in a constantly evolving platform such as social media. Various literature also points to the need for new programs and action to be taken, to not just paralyse the hold ISIS has over social media, but also to begin to undermine the narrative they are so adept at disseminating.


    Attorney-General for Australia. 2015. Combating Terrorist Propaganda Online. Australian Government Press Release. Accessed: 10 October 2016. Available at:

    Barrelle, Kate, Harris-Hogan, Shandon and Andrew Zammit. 2016. What is Countering Violent Extremism? Exploring CVE Policy and practice in Australia. Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 8 (1): 6-24

    Hoffman, Michael. 2015. ‘US Air Force Targets and Destroys ISIS HQ Building Using Social Media’. Defense Tech. Accessed 9 October 2016. Available at:

    Malet, David. 2015. ‘Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Persistence in a Global Context’. Terrorism and Political Violence 27 (1): 454-473

    Ryan, Laura. 2014. Al Qaeda and ISIS Use Twitter Differently. Here’s How and Why. National Journal Daily. Accessed: 10 October 2016. Available at

  7. Recently, terrorist groups have become increasingly effective at using social media for propaganda and recruiting purposes. In a bid to undermine the effectiveness of these social media strategies, governments, particularly the US, have sought to counter with their own social media presence. This essay seeks to critically evaluate the article “Can States Counter ISIS Through Social Media?”, which appears on The Vision Machine website. This particular piece is a condensed version of “Social Media and Counterterrorism Strategy”, also authored by Aistrope and appeared in the Australian Journal of International Affairs. The central argument of the article from The Vision Machine will be identified and the validity of the argument advanced by the article will be assessed with reference to the existing literature on the topic in order to determine the convincingness of the argument.

    Aistrope argues that when countering terrorist social media presence, government online programs, aimed at undermining ISIS social media strategy on social media, should be carefully considered as they regularly have one major flaw – a recurring problem with credibility (Aistrope, 2016). With a particular focus on the US Digital Outreach Team (DOT) and its predecessor, the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT), Aistrope argues that the efforts and rhetoric of these State Department programs are challenged by the realities of US foreign policy practice. These realities include strategic deception, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation and the like (Aistrope, 2016). As these aspects of US foreign policy throughout the War on Terror have been revealed, the War of Ideas strategy, firmly rooted in the ideals of democracy and liberal idealism, has been denigrated. This credibility deficit incites “the perception of hypocrisy, duplicity and propaganda” which Aistrope claims are generally agreed upon as the key sources of resentment to the US amongst Muslim communities (Aistrope, 2016: 122). Aistrope presents an alternative strategy where governments partner with community groups, non-governmental organisations and even private enterprise to create a counter-narrative to the one presented by ISIS. He emphasises the importance of distancing the government from these programs to ensure they remain authentic and credible to at-risk youth.

    Current literature surrounding the social media strategy of ISIS tends to agree on two main points. Firstly, that a sophisticated social media presence has become integral to ISIS’s overall strategy and secondly that efforts by the US to counter the flood of messages online are not succeeding (Allendorfer and Herring, 2015; Greenberg, 2016; Katz, 2014; McLaughlin, 2016; Van de Velde, 2015). But US failings aren’t solely due to the quantity of ISIS messaging, it is also due to the quality of rhetoric from both sides (Allendorfor and Herring, 2015). Whilst US social media counter-terrorism strategies, such as DOT are undermined by issues of credibility, the mode of operation for ISIS includes a degree of transparency (Siboni, Cohen and Koren, 2015: 129). ISIS has built upon its predecessors’ media strategy and integrated social media as a means of outreach (Greenberg, 2016: 165). Not just sharing news but often posting videos of horrific acts of violence online, ISIS does not attempt to hide their ruthlessness, giving their campaign an element of truth (McLaughlin, 2014). Unlike Al Qaeda which focussed attacks on enemy forces and did not intentionally seek to harm Muslim civilians (Siboni, Cohen and Koren, 2015: 139), not only are acts of violence against enemies shown, the group has no qualms in advertising its killing of Muslims as well (Van de Velde, 2015: 2).

    Another criticism is that programs such as DOT do not make an effort to understand the values of their target audience (Allendorfer and Herring, 2015). With Lynch arguing that there needed to be an engagement with the Muslim community, beyond Al Qaeda (2009). Similarly, while programs such as DOT directly engage in tit-for-tat twitter arguments with jihadists which Katz argues actually gives jihadists a greater platform from which to speak (2014) it also takes focus away from US youth vulnerable to being radicalised online, the audience these programs are really seeking to win the hearts and minds of.

    The alternative approach suggested by Aistrope seems promising, especially when considered against strategies that call for a silencing of ISIS (Siboni, Cohen and Koren, 2015: 140). An approach like this would require the cooperation of governments to create a taskforce and creating deals with numerous internet companies to block sites and content. Tainted by such close association with the US this would surely only provide the ISIS narrative with more ammunition against the West.

    It is clear that current efforts to counter the social media strategy of ISIS are not as effective as perhaps first hoped. Aistrope’s argument that there is a considerable gulf between US rhetoric that is disseminated by specially created State Department agencies and the realities of US foreign policy and subsequent actions is logical. When considered in light of other literature concerning this topic, it is particularly convincing. The existing literature notes that the government is poorly positioned as a fact-checker against ISIS messaging and that the perceived lack of credibility and authenticity stems from a misunderstanding on behalf of the US of the target audience’s values.

    The alternative course of action that Aistrope presents is equally compelling. This approach would see the government distanced from the counter-narrative which would be taken over by community groups, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises with the aim of engaging vulnerable youth. This approach is even more convincing when considered in light of other approaches put forward. Other approaches advocate attempting to silence all forms of terrorist social media. But if the only way to combat the narrative of ISIS messaging is to “answer them and find the arguments” (McLaughlin, 2014) as one US State Department official has claimed, engaging people (particularly the wider Muslim community as Lynch advocates) through what will hopefully be perceived as a much more reliable source than the current program will surely be much more effective than attempting to silence ISIS.

    Through a critical analysis of the central argument of Tim Aistrope’s article “Can States Counter ISIS Through Social Media?” it is clear that if states hope to effectively use social media to counter ISIS there needs to be serious changes in policy. Aistrope’s argument is supported by existing literature on the topic and the author also advances ideas on how to change the current US strategy in order to see more success in countering the incredibly sophisticated and effective use of social media adopted by ISIS to create fear in the West and recruit new fighters.

    Reference List

    Aistrope, Tim. 2016. ‘Social Media and Counterterrorism’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 70(2): 121-138.

    Aistrope, Tim. 2016. The Vision Machine: Can States Counter ISIS Through Social Media? Accessed 20 October 2016. Available at:

    Allendorfer, William and Herring, Susan. 2015. ‘ISIS vs. The US Government: A War of Online Video Propaganda’. First Monday 20(12). Accessed 21 October 2016. Available at:

    Greenberg, Karen J. 2016. ‘Counter-Radicalisation Via the Internet’. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 668(1): 165-179.

    Katz, Rita. 2014. ‘The State Department’s Twitter War with ISIS is Embarrassing’. Time. Accessed 21 October 2016. Available at:

    Lynch, Marc. 2009. ‘Engaging the Muslim World Beyond Al-Qaeda’. Conference Paper. Accessed 21 October 2016. Available at:

    McLaughlin, Jenna. 2014. ‘Why US Government Tweeters are Finding it Tough to Fight ISIS Online.’ Mother Jones. Accessed 21 October 2016. Available at: isis-social-media-state-department

    Siboni, Gabi, Daniel Cohen, Tal Koren. 2015. ‘The Islamic State’s Strategy in Cyberspace’. Military and Strategic Affairs 7(1): 127-144.

    Van de Velde, James. 2015. ‘Crash Their Comms’. The American Interest 10(6): 1-12.

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