Tapping new ways to counter extremists online
Washington - The United States is relaunching a multifaceted initiative to counter online propaganda and recruitment efforts by violent extremists. The initiative comes amid mounting frustration in Washington that the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and other groups continue to radicalise young people around the world through the use of publicly available technology, often evading the most advanced intelligence operations.
But the ambitious move, which involves the US State Department and several other government agencies as well as high-tech private sector partners, comes with its own challenges, including corporate and international clashes of culture.
US President Barack Obama alluded to the plan in an address at the United Nations last September, saying it was not enough to fight ISIS on the ground.
“Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They’re defeated by better ideas, a more attractive and compelling vision,” Obama said.
Soon after, the White House announced the programme by reaching out to top tech firms, including Twitter, Facebook, Google and Apple, which have remained secretive about the exact workings.
The most visible aspect is the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which began operations in mid-January. The head of the centre, Michael Lumpkin, also serves as assistant secretary of defence for special operations/low-intensity conflict and his resume includes working on the Ebola epidemic in Africa.
The centre’s objective is to support organisations worldwide that create an alternative and positive message to challenge extremist narratives. Lumpkin spent a good part of his first week on the job in Rome discussing global partnerships with the anti-ISIS coalition countries.
A spokesman for the State Department explained to The Arab Weekly how the partnerships would work.
“We want to help credible, local organisations and civil society leaders create their own content, and to support them and make sure they have the ability and resources to lead on their own,” said the official. “Some examples range from helping tech-savvy students create their own online content to empowering girls who have been targeted by extremists to inform their peers by saying, ‘This is what happened to me and this is what you should look out for,’” the official said, referring to stories by former ISIS captives.
The State Department has been criticised for failing to effectively combat online extremist propaganda. Critics said it has been unable to compete with the volume of tweets by ISIS or even with the quality and allure of its recruitment videos. State Department officials insist these are the wrong aspects to focus on and that the main lesson learned is a need to adapt fast to dynamic changes. One way of doing this is to employ the scientific method of constant feedback through data.
“As our efforts evolve, we are putting more emphasis on data analytics and expanding our analytics efforts, so when we employ a new messaging strategy, we’ll be able to see quickly how the messages are resonating and ultimately how effective it is,” said the State Department official. “The effort to counter Daesh [an Arabic term for ISIS] propaganda is every bit as important as the kinetic battlefield on the ground… so we have to be patient and flexible.”
For this approach to succeed, the State Department must work closely with high-tech firms that generate such analytics, a not so easy feat.
Ronald Marks served as a CIA officer and intelligence counsel to the US Senate, and sits on the board of directors at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He says that, as good as it sounds, the new initiative has major challenges to overcome. For instance, the cultural differences between bureaucratic Washington and dynamic, tech-savvy Silicon Valley are enormous and they have clashed in the past, seemingly unable to work productively together.
But the State Department says high-tech experts have enthusiastically signed on to work with the government at “a fraction of the pay” they might earn in Silicon Valley.
Perhaps a larger challenge for the government is dealing with foreign partners.
For example, what happens when the best group to combat the extremists’ allure happens to be too liberal and subversive to regimes allied with the United States in its fight against extremism? State Department officials say the United States cannot support groups seen as breaking local laws, including those related to blasphemy or forbidden dissent against the authorities. It is here major challenges may lie.
“[The State Department] really needs to focus on what is going to appeal to young men and women who are looking for something in their lives, the young men and women who feel oppressed where they are… They’re stuck in their parents’ homes unable to support themselves and attract a partner,” said Marks.
“And we are going to offend a lot of status quo partners when and if we do”.