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.

12 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.

  8. ISIS is winning the social media war (Koernor, 2016). With failure after failure of the United States (U.S.) State Department to effectively counter ISIS on social media this is quickly becoming a truth universally acknowledged. Throughout his article, Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media, Aistrope examines what is going wrong specifically with U.S. social media – namely the lack of legitimacy the U.S. has in the eyes of would-be jihadis (Aistrope, 2016a). The purpose of combatting ISIS online is threefold – firstly, counter ISIS’s narrative that they are the voice of Islam, secondly combat their misinformation, and finally “undermine [their] radicalisation of Western citizens” (Aistrope, 2016a). One the first front, Aistrope’s analysis is that state run organisations are failing miserably, and in fact possibly making the situation even worse. On the second front, he determines that they suffer from a serious credibility issue. Thirdly, he concludes that de-radicalisation is where state run organisations are least effective. His response to these failings is the empowerment of non-state actors. While his argument on the credibility issue is compelling, on de-radicalisation does not go far enough in the role these social media teams play in allowing radical Islam to be normalised to some degree and just how detrimental state involvement can be.

    ISIS claims the mantle of the caliphate, killing all they deem not to follow their fundamentalist (and often arbitrary) version of Islam. This proclamation is of course rejected by the vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims globally, however the Salafist jihadist ideology espoused by the so-called Islamic State is growing in influence rapidly all around the globe. The U.S. State Department, both through the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and the later Digital Outreach Team (DOT), has sought to discredit this view of Islam by quoting and referencing Islamic scholars and community leaders who have denounced ISIS’s worldview. This is part of the larger “War of Ideas” of “jihadism against democracy” (Phares, 2008). Throughout his article, Aistrope claims that these organisations are facing a credibility gap whereby the realities of foreign policy are undercutting the message they hope to get across. Given the U.S. foreign policy undertaken throughout the Middle East – and especially related to their arguably unconditional support of Israel and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the message that the CMT and DOT try to get across is handicapped by a perceived (and real) conflict of interest (Nader: 179).

    One example of this is the response of these teams to events that paint the U.S. in a poor light, such as Abu Ghraib. For example, an “IS-supported account” (Katz, 2014) posted the following: “REMEMBER HOW YOU AMERICA ARRESTED AND HUMILIATED OUR BROTHERS IN IRAQ AND HUMILIATED THEM IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY!!” (Katz, 2014). The U.S. run Think Again Turn Away account responded (which no longer exists) “US troops are punished for misconduct, #ISIS fighters are rewarded” which was posted with “a collage of U.S. soldiers interacting happily with children in the Middle East” (Katz, 2014). This kind of interaction was typical of the U.S. social media presence (Aistrope, 2016b), and demonstrated a lack of compassion and a head in the sand approach to an atrocity particularly culturally sensitive to Middle Easterners that fuels anti-American attitudes in the region (Pew Research Center, 2007). Ultimately, towing the state line taints the message they are trying to send across beyond redemption. This example also demonstrates the potential soapbox that engaging these accounts creates, when most of these people would otherwise have no voice to spread their message. These rank and file ISIS supporters would normally be ignored and just spreading their message to their small circle, however when state run organisations engage with them directly their voices are amplified (Aistrope, 2016a). This paints a picture of a failed U.S. social media policy in accordance with Aistrope’s article.

    One of the DOT’s key objectives – and that of its predecessor, the aptly named Counter-Misinformation Team – was precisely to stop the flow of misinformation originated from ISIS and its affiliates. For example, in Operation Valhalla, “sixteen or seventeen [insurgents] were killed, a weapons cache found and destroyed, a badly beaten hostage found and rescued, and approximately sixteen other [insurgents] detained” (Dauber, 2015). Overall, an ideal operation. However, less than an hour later, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to ISIS) had removed the weapons and moved the bodies to make it seem as though they had been shot while praying (Dauber, 2015). This is part of the larger War of Ideas where ISIS has shown itself to be immeasurably strong in creating and disseminating propaganda (McCauley, 2015). The pro-American stance that the DOT took, as shown above alienates Muslims and makes them less receptive to what the U.S. is saying regardless of whether it’s true (Katib, Dutton, and Thelwall, 2012: 458). While the U.S. can call out ISIS on its deliberate and manipulative misrepresentation of events, its lack of credibility due to U.S. foreign policy renders it impotent. The creation of state-run partisan commenters like this fail push the desired narrative, and instead drive people away, which Aistrope identified in his article.

    The counter- and de-radicalisation of Western citizens is the primary goal of challenging ISIS’s narrative. However, due to the lack of credibility, the social media strategy currently undertaken by the U.S. is simply be exacerbating the problem. People either radicalise due to social alienation and an anti-statist attitude are common, particularly due to “widespread feelings of inequity and injustice [and a sense of] marginalisation and humiliation” (European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation, 2008: 9). Consequently, state involvement taints the messenger to some degree, including when those messengers are Islamic community leaders. Fuelling this feeling of marginalisation within Muslim communities that there is a “Muslim paranoia narrative” that labels them as particularly dangerous and subversive (Aistrope, 2016c), and this makes any state involvement in spreading moderate version of Islam treat all Muslims as terrorists in waiting. The “with us or against us” narrative also conflates moderate Islam with accepting (or even supporting) U.S. foreign policy. This causes Muslims who otherwise support the message but oppose American intervention in the Middle East to disengage from the messenger. For example, by “analysing posts in 30 discussion threads on 19 websites between May and December 2009” (Khatib, Dutton and Thelwall, 2012: 457), Khatib, Dutton and Thelwall found that threads from before the DOT posted were 42.3% negative, but this number shot to 73.4% after only a few DOT posts (Khatib, Dutton and Thelwall, 2012: 464). The hypocrisy present in U.S. foreign policy undermines their ability to effectively comment on what constitutes legitimate Islam, which creates a space for ISIS to spread its message. By being “[able] to regularly communicate with others…individuals can be slowly, but steadily, introduced to the core principles of a movement” (Holt, Freilich, Chermak & McCauley, 2015). Again, by giving jihadists a platform as large as a government agency necessarily does, governments normalise radicalisation to some degree, and create ties between ISIS and its potential recruits that may otherwise never exist. State-run programs not only discredit moderate voices when advocating them, but can in fact boost the online profile of the very organisation they are trying to defeat. Aistrope touches on this in his article, but doesn’t delve into just how counterproductive this online presence can be.

    Aistrope’s analysis that foreign policy realities hinder the state’s ability to effectively combat ISIS online is very compelling. His explanation of the credibility gap that U.S. organisations face is very cogent, as is his consideration of how this lack of legitimacy can taint the messenger even in state-run organisations. However, he does not go far enough in looking at how government intervention online can aid radicalism. At the moment, states cannot counter ISIS through social media, but they’ve shown that they can definitely help it.
    Reference List:
    Aistrope, Tim 2016a Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media? Accessed online 15 May, 2017.
    Available online at
    Aistrope, Tim 2016b ‘Social media and counterterrorism strategy’ Australian Journal of International
    Affairs 70(2): 121-138
    Aistrope, Tim 2016c ‘The Muslim paranoia narrative in counter-rasicalisation policy’ Critical Studies
    on Terrorism 9: 182-204
    Dauber, Cori 2009 ‘The Truth is out There: Responding to Insurgent Disinformation and Deception Operations’ Military Review Jan-Feb: 13-24
    European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation 2008 Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism Brussels: European Commission
    Holt, Tom; Freilich, Joshua; Chermak, Steven; and McCauly, Clark 2015 ‘Political radicalization on the Internet: Extremist content, government control, and the power of victim and jihad videos’ Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 8(2): 107-120
    Katz, Rita 2014 The State Depatment’s Twitter War with ISIS is Embarrassing Accessed online 28 May, 2017. Available online at
    Khatib, Lina; Dutton, William and Thelwall, Michael 2012 ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0: A Case Study of the US Digital Outreach Team’ Middle East Journal 66(3): 453-472
    Koerner, Brendan 2016 Why ISIS is winning the Social Media War Accessed online 28 May, 2017. Available at
    Louw, Eric 2013 Social Media = Revolution? Accessed online 29 May, 2017. Available online at
    McCauley, Tom 2015 ‘The war of ideas on the Internet: An asymmetric conflict in which the strong become weak’ Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 8(1): 79-90
    Nader, Laura 2013 Culture and Dignity: Dialogues between the Middle East and the West Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
    Pew Research Center 2007 America’s Image in the World: Findings from the Pew Global Attitudes Project Accessed 1 June, 2017. Available online at pew-global-attitudes-project/
    Phares, Walid 2008 The war of ideas: jihadism against democracy. New York: St Martin’s Griffin

  9. The emergence of new media as well as technological advancements has made a consequential change to the way asymmetric warfare takes place with non-state armed groups. New media in particular has increased the advantage of these groups by giving them an outlet to voice their opinions (Rid, & Hecker, 2009). The rise of non-state armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has been gaining attention as they use new media platforms to spread powerful jihadist narratives. ISIS creates communication strategies that allows them to exploit the new media environment as channels for propaganda and extremism (Farwell, 2014). The widespread of radicalised ideas are seen as a threat to the security of states. Western governments have since pursued to take down them down through social media.

    This essay looks into critically analysing Tim Aistrope’s post from 2016 on TheVisionMachine, a platform to discuss the intersections of war, peace and media. Firstly, I will provide a summary as to what the blog post is about. Secondly, I will be engaging with the author’s emphasis on the programs that the US state department has developed. Thirdly, despite the possible positive outcomes of Aistrope’s suggestion of working with third party organisations, I will be arguing that there are limitations to it using existing literature. Lastly, I will conclude the analysis by providing suggestions that could possibly improve Aistrope’s suggested strategy.

    Tim Aistrope (2016) discussed the relationship between the asymmetric warfare and the emergence of new media as it becomes a channel to spread propaganda for non-state armed groups. In response to this, he mentions that western governments have ventured the new media in hopes to counter ISIS’s ubiquitous online influence. He argues that the American government’s credibility in their foreign policy is questionable as they attempt to counter ISIS through programs that they developed. The author noted two programs that were designed to counter extremist narrative online, Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and Digital Outreach Team (DOT). He heavily emphasised throughout the post that he was cynical about these approaches and criticised the two programs that were created by the US State Department. These programs created tension between different ideologies as it led to the perception if the Muslim world. He also felt that the main problem with these strategies was because of the contradiction between what is said and practiced in wars. The programs that were created lacked alignment with the goals as well as the foreign policies of the government. Aistrope analysed the two programs and indicated their limitations.

    The CMT was created to debunk propaganda and misinformation about America. This program had their own criteria for judging the credibility of the source. He criticises this program as he believes that the criteria that they have excludes the controversial policies. For instance, a report by the Guardian (2013), on how the Pentagon is being linked to abusing prisoners in detention centers in Iraq during the war. The program was found to not flag the government for intentional spreading propaganda to their home and international audiences. He suggests this as he found that the Pentagon was getting retired generals to be in the media to be commentators in the war after 9/11 (Ackerman, 2011).

    DOT on the other hand, was a program that was countering the misinformation and positions of the government on US foreign policies by intervening on social media platforms. They used the hashtag, #thinkagainturnaway, which aimed to present the idea that ISIS is being rejected by Muslim scholars and has gone to start a ‘rape culture’ to force women into marriage. He highlighted that their credibility is undermined on Twitter as a user mentioned how the US where torturing their prisoners who were Iraqis (Katz, 2014). Aistrope criticises this program for its lack of effectiveness. DOT’s participation online had mainly received negative feedback of how the US had gone against their foreign policy (Khatib, Dutton, & Thelwall, 2012).

    Similarly, Cronin (2015) criticises the strategy that the US used to counter ISIS as they were unable to adapt to the nature of the threat therefore the strategy did not work on ISIS. The US attempted to delegitimise ISIS like they did with Al-Qaeda by publicising them as a radical and violent group that kills their own however a repercussion happened as ISIS openly wanted to show that they were about power and seeking revenge (Cronin, 2015). They were unable to use the media effectively to become a reliable source of information that people were attracted to ISIS. Therefore, as Aistrope criticises, Cronin claims that programs lacked credibility for people to engage with and requires a better plan for containment of the radical narratives.

    Likewise, Amble (2010), believes that western governments had a narrow view of how the internet was used by terrorist organisations which meant that they were unable to adapt quickly enough to threats that they were facing. Features of the internet was known however, they were not applied to confront the situation. For instance, they did not use Facebook and Twitter to target specific accounts (Amble, 2010). Although they had the tools, governments were not able to use them effectively hence, supporting Aistrope in the fact that were unable to new media properly connect with users in providing them counter narratives that were reliable to stop supporting ISIS.

    At the end of the article, Aistrope suggests that due to shortcomings of programs like CMT and DOT, Western governments should look into collaborating with community groups, non-governmental organisation (NGO) and private companies. This suggestion still lacks depth and evidence as to how the collaboration would be effective in creating counter narratives for ISIS. Although his suggestion can work, I believe that there are some limitations that would prevent effective counter narratives.

    Targeting individuals that are already radicalised is difficult therefore, governments should look into disrupting the plans they have. Working with third party organisations, could work as they provide the information that you would need to stop an incident from happening.  Social media platforms is a popular way for groups like ISIS to communicate their narratives in real time thus, these platforms would be able to provide instant information that are critical for governments to ensure security (Amble, 2010). It creates a great mechanism where governments can assess a situation instantly to see if it is a threat or not (Amble, 2010). Data mining would allow governments to anticipate their next move (Siboni et al., 2015). A form of surveillance emerges as information collected can be used to specifically target possible threats.

    Aistrope’s suggestion however, does have its limitations. ISIS has an immense knowledge of how to exploit social media to achieve their goals. They use mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share their stories and messages of their aims to build a caliphate (Farwell, 2014). According to Foreign Policy Research institute expert Clint Watts, it would be a huge challenge to get any intercept their communication as it mainly happens within Syria and Iraq (Farwell, 2014). Due to the lack of interception points, it may be difficult for governments to work with foreign communities when they have lack of access to them in the first place.

    Another issue would be the ability to differentiate ISIS and a suspected member of ISIS. Since 2015, Twitter has closed more than 125,000 accounts that were labeled as suspected terrorist (Klein, & Flinn, 2016). Third party partnerships implement self-censorship by shutting down accounts that were not even affiliated to terrorism (Klein, & Flinn, 2016). This is a problem when governments are not able to identify threats accurately. Hence, a guideline needs to be created for how to respond to narratives that ISIS shares. Training is required for third party partners to understand the narratives that they get and address the problem without accidentally ‘harming’ citizens. With training, it would help them act uniformly without contradicting their foreign policies.

    In conclusion, Aistrope’s article discusses the issues of defeating ISIS online through new media and the contradiction of what is said and done. The author argued that caused the lack of credibility and reliability of the narratives that governments share. He also mentioned the need for cooperation between community groups, NGOs and private enterprises. I have identified the limitations of the partnership which can be overcome with the recommendations. Ultimately, defeating ISIS can be achieved through social media if strategies are updated according to the situation and third party coalitions are able to calibrate their narratives to ensure credibility.


    Ackerman, B. (2011). Remember How the Bush Pentagon Turned Retired Generals into Media Shills? It Could Happen Again.. Slate Magazine. Retrieved 30 May 2017, from

    Aistrope, T. (2016). Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media? | The Vision Machine. Retrieved 30 May 2017, from

    Amble, J. (2010). Combating Terrorism in the New Media Environment. Retrieved 1 June 2017

    Cronin, A. (2015). ISIS Is Not Terrorist Group: Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat (1st ed., pp. Foreign Affairs 94(2), 87-[viii]).

    Farwell, J. (2014). The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival. Retrieved 30 May 2017

    Katz, R. (2014). The State Department Is Fumbling on Twitter. Retrieved 31 May 2017, from

    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).

    Klein, S., & Flinn, C. (2016). Social Media Compliance Programs and the War Against Terrorism. Harvard National Security Journal, 8.

    O’Kane, M., Mahmood, M., Madlena, C., & Smith, T. (2013). Revealed: Pentagon’s link to Iraqi torture centres. the Guardian. Retrieved 30 May 2017, from

    Rid, T., & Hecker, M. (2009). War 2.0 (1st ed., pp. 1-12). Praeger Security international.

    Siboni, G., Cohen, D., & Koren, T. (2015). The Islamic State’s Strategy in Cyberspace. Military And Strategic Affairs, 7(1), 3-29.

  10. POLS3512 Critical Review Essay

    As technology has evolved, the internet has moved to the forefront as means of communication, becoming a “virtual playground” for extremist views to be discussed and reinforced (Awan 2017: 138). Social media is being utilized as a powerful platform for terrorist organisations such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to spread propaganda, recruit, communicate and fundraise for their cause (Awan 2017: 140).  Western governments have taken notice of the success ISIS has had in recruiting individuals from overseas to fight for their cause and developed online counter terrorist strategies in an attempt to combat terrorist organisations use of social media.  Tim Aistrope (2016) discusses the strategy utilized by the United States (US) government in his article “Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?”. The following essay will examine this article in regards to other literature on the topic, discussing whether the argument presented in convincing, if it could have been done better and if there is any evidence to counter what Tim Aistrope has discussed.
    In the short article, Tim Aistropes’ (2016) argues that government run online counter terrorism efforts are falling short due the issue of credibility. This is because the authenticity of the information being presented in online government initiatives are being undermined by the realities of their own foreign policy practice (Aistrope 2016). In providing evidence to back this argument, Aistrope (2016) focuses solely on the strategies employed by the United States (US) and the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and Digital Outreach Team (DOT).  Aistrope (2016) highlights the contradiction between the liberal idealism rhetoric and reality exemplified in the US war on terror.
    In discussing the CMT, Aistrope (2016) raises the issue of a Muslim audience to taking information from the US government at face value considering the list of sanctioned illegality and deception the state has been involved with, highlighting the US involvement in regime changes. Aistrope (2016) emphasises that the CMTs’ own reliability criteria can be used to discredit the US government as a credible source. Aistrope (2016) then further supports his argument through the discussion of DOT and its #thinkagainturnaway initiative, pointing to a study that found DOT’s posts generated antagonism and cynicism around US foreign policy and motives. An example is provided by Aistrope (2016) of the US credibility being called into question regarding its own foreign policy malpractice with an ISIS supporter bringing up the US abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to counter a DOT post about ISIS atrocities (Aistrope 2016). Aistrope (2016) concludes his article by asserting that authenticity and connection are crucial in counter terrorism strategies and with government involvement comes the vulnerability of the message being tainted. Aistrope (2016) asserts that a more promising counter terrorist strategy to employ would be one through community groups, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises.
    In light of literature surrounding the use of social media by ISIS and counter terrorist strategies, the central argument offered by Tim Aistrope is supported and therefore convincing. Aistropes’ claim that government run online counter terrorism efforts are failing short is supported at a base level by the fact that ISIS are still successfully disseminating propaganda and recruiting utilizing social media platforms (Awan 2017: 138). Awan (2017: 143) in a study of ISIS social media use found that whilst there was online backlash against ISIS, there was also a pervading sense of the group’s narrative and propaganda, leading to in some circumstances the glorification and power exaggeration of ISIS.
    The claims made by Aistrope in regards to DOT and the US government were also supported by various studies on the topic.  In study conducted by Khatib, Dutton and Thelwell (2012) examining the efforts of DOT found that the engagements of DOT members on social media platforms had done little to change anti-American conversations. Further as discussed by Dewey (2013) the same study actually found that the efforts of DOT were likely to incite ridicule or rebut rather than engagement won the social media platforms. Further, Katz (2014) points out that the outreach of the US government on social media platforms particularly on Twitter has been largely ineffective. In addition, Katz (2014) emphasises that directly engaging with ISIS supporters and fighters is providing a platform for the terrorist group to voice their argument, putting the US government and ISIS on the same level on social media.  The examples Katz (2014) provides of these engagements highlights the way in which ISIS supporters are able to discredit the US government as Aistrope claims by bringing up US foreign policy practices that contradict the message of ISIS atrocities that DOT bring forward.  Miller (2015) enforces the argument through his reporting of expert panel findings that questioned the involvement of the US government in direct messaging of counter terrorist narratives given the government’s credibility with Muslim audiences.
    Furthermore, in a report released by the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (CGCC), authors Chowdhury Fink and Barclay (2013: 33) recognise credibility of the messenger as critical in the delivery of a counter terrorist narrative. Chowdhury Fink and Barclay (2013: 33) assert that utilizing cultural, religious and local voices are powerful sources in educating communities to delegitimize terrorist groups. In addition to this, the report warns against the partnering with governments as these relationships have the potential to create distrust in communities and erode credibility of the messenger (Chowdhury Fink and Barclay 2013:33). It can be see that in the CGCC report by Chowdhury Fink and Barclay (2013), it not only supports the main argument in the credibility issue governments have but also in the suggestion that governments be less involved in the delivery of the message.  It is evident that there are several pieces of literature that support Aistropes’ argument asserting that government run online counter terrorist efforts are falling short due to the issue of credibility.
    Given the nature of the piece was a brief article, Aistrope utilized a short format that is easily consumed by its audience. Even with the limited words, Aistrope was able to provide a clear and concise argument with evidence to back his claims. It was difficult to find any counter evidence that would bring Aistropes message into question, with the literature overwhelmingly in support of Aistropes’ message as demonstrated above.  However, there was a way in which Aistrope could have strengthened his argument. Aistrope starts his article discussing western governments strategies but solely focuses on the strategies of the US, failing to take advantage of discussing other states strategies to strengthen his argument.  For example, the UK’s counter strategy has also been accused of falling short due to credibility issues. According to Brandon (2014), UK counter terrorism strategy “Prevent” was bombarded by coordinated ISIS propaganda dissemination that was able to discredit the organisation through accusations of islamophobia and the mishandling of funding. This resulted in a reported lower level trust in the wider Muslim community and ultimately a largely unsuccessful online counter terrorism campaign (Brandon 2014).
    In conclusion, Aistrope (2016) convincingly argues in his article that government run online counter terrorist efforts are falling short due to the lack of credibility because of the contradiction between government rhetoric and practice in foreign policy. Aistrope supports this argument through the discussion of US counter terrorist strategy, specifically the CMT and DOT failed social media efforts. In an effort to improve counter terrorism strategy, Aistrope (2016) suggests that private and non-governmental organisations should be used with limited to no direct government involvement. Aistropes’ message is supported by several pieces of literature, supporting the notion that DOTs and CMT failure was largely due to the lack of credibility of the US government given past foreign policy practices (Khatib, Dutton and Thelwell 2012; Dewey 2013; Katz 2014; Miller 2015). Further, a report by CGCC suggested that in counter terrorist strategy the delivery of the message is best done by cultural, religious and local voices with the least amount of overt government involvement (Chowdhury Fink and Barclay 2013). With little literature found to counter Aisatropes’ narrative, the argument was very convincing however could have been strengthened by incorporating discussion of government strategies other than the US. Overall given the short format of the article, Aistrope was clear and concise in the presentation of his message regarding the credibility of the government in online counter terrorist strategies with the use of persuasive evidence that is supported by a number of sources.

    Reference List

    Aistrope, T. (2016). Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media? | The Vision Machine. Retrieved 25 May 2017, from

    Awan, I. (2017). Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media. Society, 54(2), 138-149.
    Brandon, J. (2014). The UK’s Counter-Radicalization Strategy Just Failed; What Now? – War on the Rocks. War on the Rocks. Retrieved 25 May 2017, from

    Chowdhury Fink, N., & Barclay, J. (2013). Mastering the Narrative: Counterterrorism Strategic Communication and the United Nations (pp. 1-46). Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. Retrieved from

    Dewey, C. (2013). The State Department’s Arabic outreach team spoofed an al-Qaeda video. Washington Post. Retrieved 25 May 2017, from

    Katz, R. (2014). The State Department Is Fumbling on Twitter. Retrieved 25 May 2017, from

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

    Miller, G. (2015). Panel casts doubt on U.S. propaganda efforts against ISIS. Washington Post. Retrieved 26 May 2017, from

  11. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or more prominently known as ISIS has been posing a serious threat to international peace and security. Its philosophy is described as a combination of religious discourse and political aspirations, tethered to a powerful process involving moral and emotional obligations as well as legal responsibilities. The emergence of new media and massive transformation of technology have somewhat facilitated ISIS’s media strategy which ultimately aims to disseminate its propaganda and recruit fighters. Cohen points out that the Islamic State’s marketing strategy has always revolved around the extensive utilization of social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram and Kik (2015: 13). As an outcome of these advancements, countering the Islamic State has not only been undertaken on a physical arena but also via online platforms.

    Throughout this essay, I will critically analyse Tim Aistrope’s blog post that was published on The Vision Machine entitled ‘Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?’. In that particular blog post, he outlines the success of ISIS in its social media strategies and delivers the flaws of two US State Department programs that seek to counter extremist narratives which are the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT). He also stresses out on the importance of gravitating online counterterrorsim approach towards engaging with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups and private entities in order to facilitate counter narratives to ISIS social media messaging. He also acknowledges the importance of growing capacities and competencies instead of conveying content or strategic messaging. I would also suggest improvements that Aistrope could have done to make his writing better.

    Many scholars have put a prominence on extremist groups and terrorist organizations, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and in light of this literature, it is apparent that Aistrope’s concerns raised in his blog post is legitimate and a global concern. Ryan points out that ISIS has not only proven to be the most effective extremist group to make use of the new media, but it also takes advantage over social media to propagate the message of religious obligations in order to allure more people to be part of their jihadist struggles (2014:1). Despite being a newly-born social movement, ISIS seems to have studied and improvised al-Qaeda’s media strategies which can obviously be attributed to their utilization of Facebook and Twitter not to only disseminate their propaganda via them but to also actively exploit features like hashtags for their own selfish interest (Farwell 2014: 51). Malet also puts forward an evidence which seems to correlate with Aistrope’s thesis that views that the success of ISIS’s media is also evident by the escalating number of foreign fighters being mobilized through social media (2015: 454).

    The Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) which aimed to suppress ISIS propaganda and misinformation about the United States and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), that has been actively seeking to discredit the ISIS by countering its religious, social and military legitimacy, have been proven to be problematic on various accounts. Aistrope puts a clear emphasis that sees these two approaches as a failure as they both have portrayed a contradiction rhetoric and practice in the War on Ideas (2016: 122) Sorenson reinforces with Aistrope’s view in which he also perceives that the problem of credibility, particularly in the minds of Muslim, has often been a critical issue when it comes to assessing the shortcomings of these programs as the authenticity of the US government information has always been perceived to be undermined by the realities of its foreign policy practice (2014: 34). The American military intervention in Iraq and involvements in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in the wake of the 9/11 attacks have also contributed to the tension in the rhetoric of democracy and liberal idealism as claimed by Aistrope hence exacerbating the American problem in formulating an ideal counterterrorism approach that best fits their ideals (O’Connor 2004: 81).

    Aistrope’s argument of how he sees the state is barely successful when it comes to battling with ISIS’s online presence is reinforced by other scholars. Ancker and Michael point out that asymmetric warfare is far more complicated to the state rather than it is to the insurgents due to its nature that encompasses a broad range of theory, definition and conjecture and also deals with unknowns, with surprise in terms of means and ends (2003: 18). The ISIS’s decentralized approach which is often attributed to its ‘one-to-one’ communication seems to give way to a more effective campaign compared to what states have to offer in winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population. ISIS’s pervasive use of social media platforms like Twitter is also argued by (Bodine-Baron et al 2016: xii) to be highly fragmented and it also covers different communities that care about different topics. Altman argues that one of the main appeals to ISIS that prompt them to use Twitter as their social media weapon is because of how difficult or nearly impossible it is for both, site and authorities, to permanently delete extremist messages in the form of tweets particularly when they have been re-tweeted or re-posted by its sympathizers and supporters (2014). The utilization of closed social platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Skype also exacerbates the problem as the DOT and CMT approaches are only focused on open sites (Bouzis 2015: 15)

    However, contrary to ISIS, the state is more invested in less sophisticated method that is far less engaging and effective which is often described as a ‘one-way broadcast’ or ‘one-to-many’ approach. There are numerous projects and campaigns that have been undertaken by the state but only few are seen to have incorporated elements of engaging with a specific group of individuals. Bouzis, who assesses non-kinetic engagement including DOT along with its #thinkagainturnaway initiative, also stresses out that the counterterrorism approach that DOT represents might work in a particular aspect but the main limitation she puts a clear emphasis on is that DOT can only be successful on more open social platforms like Twitter and Facebook but not on WhatsApp, Telegram etc (2015: 889). Ackerman also criticizes the United States counterterrorism campaign the #thinkagainturnaway campaign on Twitter does not really seem engaging and casual but rather it sounds more news-like (2014).

    Despite the revelation of the flawed state’s approaches, there is still one critical question that requires an answer; what could have done better? In regard to his blog post, it is undeniable that Aistrope did a remarkable job in addressing the fundamental problem of state’s approach in countering ISIS’s narratives on social media and also in suggesting a clear-cut solution to address ISIS online presence but nevertheless, I believe it would have been better if he had perhaps provided limitations to his stated approach. For example, Klein and Flinn have proven that partnering with other groups particularly private entities such as Twitter and Facebook did not really work because as soon as the social media companies shut down their propaganda accounts, another new ones would appear (2016: 15). This would be a never-ending process that would ultimately produce no significant results. His writing, I believe, is also US-centric as it fails do comparisons with other projects and programs that have been implemented in other countries.

    Nevertheless, I find Aistrope’s suggestion of how the U.S government should step up their game by collaborating with NGOs, community groups and private companies somehow a bit misleading. In the first few paragraphs of his writing, he claims that the credibility issue of the U.S government will arise if it were to get too involved in the American counterterrorism strategies and seems to favour approaches that are more connected to the audience rather than the government. However, in the last paragraph, Aistrope puts an emphasis that the most ideal approach that should be undertaken is the one that involves collaboration between the government and other entities (2016). I believe that the irony that can be found through these points would spark confusion to readers.

    Conclusively, Aistrope has portrayed an argument on the ineffectiveness of the U.S in battling ISIS online presence via social media platforms through the execution of Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT). He also points out the inconsistency between what states advocate and what states have actually done which somehow makes them appear to be lacking of reliability and credibility in terms of the sources they provided. As a response to the inefficacy of state’s counter narrative strategies, he brings into light an approach that sees the essentiality of online counterterrorism approaches to gravitate towards engaging with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private entities and community groups to facilitate the process of delivering counter narratives to ISIS messaging. Nevertheless, I have suggested that Aistope could have made his article more convincible by stating limitations to his stated approach which I later put forward a few examples made by other scholars that might be useful to reveal the limitations to his approach.


    Aistrope, Tim 2016 ‘Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?’, The Vision Machine 28
    March. Accessed 27 May 2017. Available at

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

    Alex, Altman 2014 ‘Why Terrorists Love Twitter’, TIME 11 September. Accessed 30 May 2017.
    Available at

    Ancker III, Clinton J., and Michael D. Burke 2003 ‘Doctrine for Asymmetric Warfare’, Military
    Review 83(4): 18.

    Ackerman, Spencer 2014 ‘ISIS’s Online Propaganda Outpacing US Counter-efforts, Ex-officials
    Warn’ , The Guardian 22 September. Accessed 30 May 2017. Available at

    Bodine-Baron, Elizabeth, Todd C. Helmus, Madeline Magnuson, and Zev Winkelman 2016
    ‘Examining ISIS Support and Opposition Networks on Twitter’, RAND Corporation 29-30.
    Bouzis, Kathleen 2015. ‘Countering the Islamic State: U.S. Counterterrorism Measures’,
    Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38(10): 885-897

    Cohen, Jared 2015 ‘Digital Counterinsurgency’, Foreign Affairs 94(1): 3-52.

    Farwell, James P 2014 ‘The Media Strategy of ISIS’, Survival 56(6): 49-55.

    Klein, Susan, and Crystal Flinn 2017 ‘Social Media Compliance Programs and the War Against
    Terrorism’, Harv. Nat’l Sec. J. 8(1): 53.

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

    O’Connor, Brendon 2004 ‘A Brief History of Anti-Americanism: From Cultural Criticism to
    Terrorism’, Australasian Journal of American Studies 23(1): 77-92.

    Ryan, laura 2014 ‘Al-Qaeda and ISIS Use Twitter Differently. Here’s How and Why’, National
    Journal Daily. Accessed 25May 2017. Available at

    Sorenson, David S 2014 ‘Priming Strategic Communications: Countering the Appeal of ISIS’,
    Parameters 44(3): 25-40.

  12. Tim Aistrope’s spotlight article from begins with the question, ‘Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?’ (2016). The main argument put forward by Aistrope is that governmental agencies and strategies have thus far failed in their attempts to counter ISIS through social media due to past instances of counter-narratives being used to cover up poor U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He goes on to state that, conversely, non-governmental agencies, organisations and companies will have more impact and power in countering ISIS on the social media playing field, as they will be more easily able to convey authenticity than programs that are linked with the government.

    Social media is undoubtedly one of- if not the most- powerful form of media in modern times. The widespread nature of social media makes it an accessible medium that allows people from all walks of life feel that they can engage with, and participate in, current news and events. For example, social media had a great impact on the reporting of the Arab Spring, the 2013 Turkish protests, the Syrian Civil War, recent conflict in the Ukraine and, perhaps most visibly, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Ana Adi, in a study analysing the communications and correspondence of the Occupy movement online over social media, confirms the notion that social media has great ability to shift the circumstances of conflict and opinion in saying;
    “Although physical occupations are long over, the occupations continue online, the movement and its supporting groups extending its existence to the new medium. This explains why the messages shared on the websites and Twitter relate to wider and related protests and why, at times, the groups revert to dissent PR tactics by hijacking other activist groups’ projects or by making newsjacking attempts.” (Adi, 2015)

    It goes without saying that whilst social media has the power to spread a positive and constructive message, it can also be used as a weapon in the wrong hands. In the case of the Islamic State (IS), social media is used to create a sense of fear and foreboding in international audiences, and to therefore undermine the power of Western governments, particularly the U.S. Further to this, IS’ social media presence has the intention of attracting ‘soldiers’ from abroad and compelling them to join the fight for IS. Powerful propaganda can be used in this scenario to implant radical thinking, and it often encourages and facilitates lone wolf actors/terrorists (Kohlmann, 2006).

    One of the unique aspects of the IS approach to social media is that it aims to create a personal engagement with its target audience (Talbot, 2015). ISIS has a presence on an extremely wide variety of social networking platforms, such as, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, PalTalk, kik, viper,, and Tumblr (Klausen, 2014). The aim of this approach appears to be interaction with as many different people as possible. On the other hand, the U.S. State Department programs base their approach more heavily on ‘uploading information’ rather than the aforementioned system of personal engagement (i.e. direct messaging etc). This makes its message seem a lot less immediate, and can make it easier for people to ignore or overlook. This lends credence to Aistrope’s notion that non-government agencies may have more success if presenting a less regimented and ‘official’ message.

    These issues are obviously central not only to international politics, but to domestic politics in countries like the U.S., where lone wolf terror attacks appear to be occurring with alarming velocity and frequency. Aistrope touches on two U.S. State Department programs, the Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT) which focuses on dispelling false information and propaganda about the U.S., and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT) that attempts to educate U.S. citizens on the IS. Aistrope acknowledges that the aim of these programs is to “[undermine] the radicalisation of Western citizens” (2016), but he believes that this aim is not achieved.

    Aistrope’s main criticism of these programs is “…the recurring issue of credibility, when the authenticity of government information is undercut by the realities of foreign policy practice.” (2016) This is certainly the case, however I believe the spotlight requires more expansion on one of the criticisms only touched upon by Aistrope. It is not just the content of the message presented by those states attempting to counter ISIS through social media that is being poorly handled. It is also the way in which said message is conveyed. For example, Twitter campaigns such as #thinkagainturnaway- which Aistrope briefly comments on- are not effective as they come across as quite dated and poorly informed.

    Another strong example of similar counterproductive government campaigns targeting ISIS include a short video commissioned by the U.S. Department of State called ‘Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land (ISIS/ISIL)’, which includes the line “run, don’t walk, to ISIS Land”. The video is an attempt at using sarcasm and satire to shed light on the situation in the Middle East, and to deter people from supporting or sympathising with ISIS’ cause. However, both citizens and journalists alike have criticised this video as being poorly made and many believe that the sarcasm can be somewhat lost in translation in a socio-political setting where such errors cannot afford to be made.

    Aistrope’s spotlight is largely U.S. centric, and would have benefited from a broader scope. In saying this, the title he has selected is misleading, as it asks whether ‘states’ can counter ISIS through social media, but goes on to focus on the United States specifically anyway. Moreover, Aistrope provides solid criticisms of government-led programs that are evidentially supported by other key scholars, but fails to provide a developed constructive solution for the future of these programs.

    Aistrope’s main argument is unquestionably solid and true. Current government methods of combating the influence of ISIS on social media are not working effectively. Indeed, he shows in his article that a departure from government-led programs could incite real change and foster a sense of authenticity and connectedness within communities affected by IS. Other scholars support his claims, which adds to the validity of the spotlight. Although Aistrope’s article would benefit from a broader international scope and a more established set of potential solutions, it serves as an excellent overview on the role of social media in modern conflict.


    Adi, A. (2015). Occupy PR: An analysis of online media communications of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London. Public Relations Review, 41(4), 508-514.

    Aistrope, T. (2016). Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media? | The Vision Machine. Retrieved 3 June 2017, from

    Klausen, J. (2014). Tweeting theJihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq. Studies In Conflict & Terrorism, 38(1), 1-22.

    Kohlmann, E. (2006). The Real Online Terrorist Threat. Foreign Affairs, 85(5), 115.

    Talbot, D. (2015). Fighting ISIS Online. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 11 June 2017, from

    WARNING: ‘Welcome to the “Islamic State” land (ISIS/ISIL)’. Daily Mail Australia. Retrieved 11 June 2017, from

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