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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.