Archive For: Security State

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.


Innerview: Ron Deibert

Cyberterrorism, cyberwar, espionage, the Great Firewall of China, surveillance, human rights, Snowden, insurgencies, computer network attacks, hacking, data sweeping…  The Vision Machine had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  Deibert runs the Citizen Lab, a large interdisciplinary research facility that endeavors to track attempts by state and non-state actors to control the flow of information in cyberspace.  This interview, conducted by Seb Kaempf, plums Deibert’s extensive knowledge of how the gears of the net really turn and its possibilities for both democratic and authoritarian politics.  In addition to the reports generated by the Citizen Lab itself, Deibert has most recently authored the book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Random House, 2013).


Blood & Treasure Afghanistan: OUT, OUT, Damn Appendix!

— A Mostly Melodic Guide to Unanswered Afghanistan Questions —

Let’s All Sing: “We Don’t Need to Know What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, No, No, No, No!”

Our Musical Response to Those Irksome Burning SIGAR Questions

It is the job of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction[SIGAR] to report on how the USA has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in that long-suffering land.

And mispent a bloody enormous chunk of US taxpayer change, we’ve learned.

This, remarkably, because the energetic Congressionally-appointed SIGAR commissar John Sopko and his staff have proved a genuine pain in the ass to the normally utterly unaccountable US Department of Defense, American military, various corrupt private contractors, ineffective UN Agencies… and their political masters.

Missing guns, missing millions; more, much more, SIGAR reveals in its quarterly reports and other investigations. The US military is suffering terrible embarrassments report after report after report. How to address such problems? The new answer is clear as mud: stonewalling. The American commander in Afghanistan has suddenly classified all sorts of information [see the first page of Appendix E above], claiming that operational security is at risk. Example: we can’t be told the number of Afghan Government troops because … ah, the Taliban might decide to start a war?

Even the NY Times thinks this ridiculous… and if the “Gray Lady” moans, we know it must be well and truly off-the-scale WTF egregious!

Ridicule is what this stupidity and denial of our right to know of our government’s actions deserves: here is one wonderful response in a series of GIFs from Hayes Brown at Buzzfeed.

Taking off from that, we can also craft a musical response. A bit of online cabaret, if you will… so please scroll down for musical selections that lyrically address SIGAR questions that the US military warns are above our need-to-know paygrade as mere citizens. Have a glass of wine. Or a beer. Sing along if you like!

We ponder: will SIGAR be kept schtum? Tossed into the ashtray of history? Leaks will come, one expects. But with Obama’s war on whistleblowers still in full cry, expect that every device and every platform of anyone even remotely associated with SIGAR are now being monitored. You know who you are. So do they.


Any other tuneful suggestions? Please offer some of your own in the comments….

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide … information on Afghan National Army (ANA) strength as of December 29, 2014”

                      Musical response:  Darkness Stirs and Wakes Imagination 

“Music of the Night”

— Phantom of the Opera

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on DOD-funded ANA infrastructure projects, including the cumulative number of projects completed to date and their total cost.”

Musical response: Build it up with sticks and stones, sticks and stones… 

“London Bridge Is Falling Down”

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the ANA using U.S. funds as of December 29, 2014″

Musical response:  Go on take the money and run

“Take the Money and Run”

— Steve Miller Band

SIGAR Question: “Please identify each type of aircraft in the [Afghan Air Force] inventory, the number of each; and of that number, the number not usable. Are there any aircraft purchased but not yet fielded?”

Musical response: You’ll never Never NEVER reach the sky…  

“Sky Pilot”

— Eric Burdon and the Animals

SIGAR Question:  “Please provide the status of the [Afghan National Security Forces’] medical/health care system as of December 29, 2014”

Musical response:  Tell me what you see, I hear their cries, Just say if it’s too late for me… 

Doctor My Eyes”

— Jackson Browne

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details on U.S. efforts to equip the [Afghan National Police] using U.S. funds, as of December 29, 2014, including total number and cost of weapons and weapons-related equipment procured and fielded to date”

Musical response:  She’s not a girl who misses much I need a fix cause I’m going down..

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”

— Beatles

SIGAR Question: “Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete”

Musical response:  Don’t know much about history…  

“What a Wonderful World It Would Be”

— Sam Cook

Any Musical Conclusions? Well…. YES!!! 

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right….  

“Stuck in the Middle with You”

— Stealers Wheel

SIGAR questions answered? No, and the burgeoning American Security Apparat is committed 24/7 to keep it that way.

Every single day, every word you say, I’ll be watching you…

“Every Breath You Take”

— The Police

The likelihood that this repressive foolishness will bring change?

Says WHO ???… Won’t what???  


And lest we forget… dedicated to the leaders who were asleep on their watch as we were attacked, failed to finish one war so they could launch a pointless other, and are unrepentant for condemning generations to conflict….

You’re a Lying, Cheating Bully, and your friends are lowlife too; You wake up every morning, just wondering who to screw…

“Lying Cheating Bully” *

— Rene Meijer and Friends

* Transparency Moment:

A note from the musical selection jury: the final number, “Lying, Cheating, Bully”, was written by me with my down-home dirty Dutch country-music brother Rene Meijer, and is featured on our award-winning album, Dashboard Jesus. The lyric at first read “and your friends are assholes, too”. We changed that to “lowlife” so the song could be on radio. But the original still plays in my mind.

Folks have more than a few times asked if the song was written about Dick & Dubya. No. It was inspired by a very real but much lesser local reprobate.

But as my from-somewhere-faraway great-grandpappy might have said, had I ever met him:

“If the boot fits, stick it in!”


Innerview: Mark Andrejevic

The Vision Machine sought out Dr. Mark Andrejevic for his thoughts regarding surveillance, datamining, and the recent NSA revelations.  His 2013 book, Infoglut: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way We Think and Know, is a timely confrontation with the recent shift toward this new mode of control.  What makes this book particularly powerful is not simply its documentation of how the big data apparatus works, but also its discussion of the philosophical and cultural undercurrents that accompany the big data world – everything from precog crime and signature strikes to the externalizing of subjectivity and the proliferation of conspiracy rhetoric in public life.   In the innerview, he draws both from the book and events that have transpired since its publication.

Dr. Andrejevic is media scholar at the Center for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland.  Here, we present two versions of the innerview: a condensed video and a nearly unabridged hour-long audio segment that goes into greater depth and detail.

Full Audio:

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