Western Technology vs. Extremism

Google, Facebook + Twitter pit themselves against the Islamic State

Byzantine manuscript illustration showing Greek fire in action via Wikipedia

If you passed Khadiza Sultana on the street of Bethnal Green, London in 2015, you would have noted a happy, engaged and vivacious teenager. By all accounts, her family was stunned when London’s Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism squad told them that Khadiza and two of her friends had successfully crossed into Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Khadiza was far from unique, however. Around the world, young men and women who have fully embraced pop culture, video games and social media have felt connected and even compelled to die for a radical movement grounded in opposition to the modern world and which sees uncompromising violence as the only solution to a world they find hostile.

Over the past two years, the success of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in using digital media to engage audiences has helped bolster its international standing, spread its uncompromising message, and drawn legions of foreign fighters to its cause. But it has also done much more, because the IS model of messaging is already becoming a template for future extremists. As such, IS represents a case study for how smart, agile actors can execute modern propaganda campaigns that confound slow-moving state opponents and enable significant advantages on and off the battlefield.

Struggling to remain relevant

In January of this year, speaking at a press conference in Paris, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, gave a pithy summary of the current state of play on the media front in the global war on terror. “We’re having some success,” Carter confessed to the assembled reporters, “but democracies are slow, and they only tell the truth. And in a message-driven Internet world, that puts you at a structural disadvantage compared to people who are nimble, agile, and lie.”

If anything, Carter’s assessment was overly optimistic. From a strategic perspective, the Islamic State has demonstrated a significant “first-mover” advantage, connecting with its audiences early and quickly delegitimizing the U.S. response before it has even been launched. The Islamic State’s successes speak to a signal shift in the media space: as the Digital Age has progressively erased previous limitations on the distribution of media, it has empowered actors who are closer to their audience and understand how social and mobile media platforms can serve as a key offensive weapon for influence.

This, in turn, has presented the U.S. government with a singular challenge. In the near term, the only truly effective strategy to counter IS messaging is by countering its use of Western communication tools — digital and social media, mobile phones and laptops. Here, the United States and its allies in the West have a massive technological advantage. But official Washington has only just begun to harness this leverage by engaging, and sometimes pressuring, Silicon Valley to identify and delete extremist social accounts, as well as helping to target at-risk audiences with an effective counter-narrative.

Privatizing the media battle

The strongest voice on the role of Western technology’s role in combating extremism has been Jared Cohen, President of Jigsaw, Google’s idea platform. “To wage a digital counterinsurgency, we need to understand the structure of this enemy’s digital army,” Cohen explained in a December 2015 oped in the Los Angeles Times. “Engaging on the digital front is integral to defeating Islamic State. Its digital operations are so extensive that the multinational coalition against Islamic State should launch a comprehensive, digital counterinsurgency.”

Cohen is putting his money where his mouth is. In recent months, Jigsaw, in partnership with Moonshot CVE, a British-based social data group, has created Redirect, a tool leverages Google ad targeting and data analysis of social platforms to model and identify audiences susceptible to extremist messaging. It then, like a commercial ad operation, builds a playlist of “pre-existing content, including content that wasn’t created expressly for the purpose of counter-messaging,” which is delivered to these at-risk audiences next to the extremist content they are consuming to attempt to nullify the “first mover” advantage of extremists. The point is to use the power of ad targeting to “redirect” people toward content that points them in a new direction.

The Redirect program is not ground-breaking science. Rather, it is a redirection of existing technology that is used by marketers and presidential candidates alike. It leverages proven — and powerful technology targeting that’s already being applied in other capacities. For example, send an email to a dozen friends and post to Facebook mentioning that you are interested in buying a new car and see how your ad environment changes.

The method is not without its critics, however. Redirect has some concerned about how this clever use of common technology can be used by commercial and governmental interests to subvert freedom of information or fully leverage the ephemeral ad format. In the words of one skeptic: “Redirect is a noble and typically clever techie initiative to help divert people away from truly appalling and vile apocalyptic nihilism, but it does nothing in itself to re-establish the credibility of mainstream views.” Nevertheless, on balance the advantages of Redirect (most prominently its use of readily available technology) make it a compelling response to an opponent already adroit in its use of social media and mobile apps.

Facebook and Twitter have taken a less “whizz-bangy” approach to countering extremism. Facebook, like Google’s YouTube, relies on a mix of algorithm, brute force and ample revenue to reduce hate speech online. It recently founded the Online Civil Courage Initiative in Europe and partnered with Bertelsmann, a large European media holding company, to identify and remove hate speech, including IS content. Facebook also launched “Counter Speak,” an initiative that provides ad credits of up to $1,000 to nonprofits and registered “counter speakers” whose messages confront and dilute radical online ideas. The company is also a sponsor, along with the U.S. Department of State, of “Peer to Peer,” a competition of college teams to create effective content to counter violent extremism run by EdVenture Partners, a nonprofit. (Full disclosure: the author was a judge for the first Peer to Peer competition.)

For Twitter, meanwhile, the problem of extremist messaging is magnitudes larger than it is for Google or Facebook. Twitter Public Policy’s approach has been to aggressively suspend accounts of IS members or supporters. In August 2016, Twitter suspended over 360,000 accounts, which, according to one study from the George Washington University, has been effective in diminishing activity on the platform by the Islamic State. However, other studies have found that IS members send out 50 percent more tweets per day than counter-IS Twitter users, and there exist a range of identity hacks by which it is possible to bring a suspended IS user back online.

Looking further

Yet, while these technology-driven methods have proven effective, account suspensions or redirection can only take countering extremism so far. Behind the technology stream are human beings who can adapt and employ their own technology countermeasures. Today, the greater challenge facing the United States and its allies is finding the best way to combine smart technology with effective counter narratives to fill the short-term gap that exists in our digital defenses.

Over the past year, U.S. and Western European governments have learned the limitations of their traditional approaches. The U.S. State Department initially led with aggressive messages that told potential recruits to “Think Again, Turn Away” from IS atrocities. While the campaign demonstrated action, it also became apparent that this messaging was ineffective because it did not build an “authentic” relationship or create a believable counter narrative that dissuaded vulnerable at-risk populations.

U.S. and regional authorities are now beginning to understand that their proper role is to support and amplify more effective messengers, providing the tools for an audience-centric response to IS propaganda. The U.S. has retooled their strategy away from direct messages to supporting agile community-based advocates and building similar support networks within Middle Eastern and other regional governments. Counter-IS media efforts have also improved with the injection of smarter technology and credible messengers, although there are lingering concerns about the “privatization” of countering extremism (insofar as large private sector media conglomerates do not necessarily have the same long-term interests as the U.S. or other governments).

Here, the United States is not without its advantages. Even if it cannot match the agility or the ability of extremists to engage audiences, the U.S. has significant leverage conveyed both by its economic clout and by its ability to influence the structure of societies and media environments. The core objective, however, must be to continue to reduce the salience of IS messaging and support the development of media environments — mobile, social and traditional broadcast — that are resilient to extremist messaging in the first place.

There are heartening signs that this is beginning to happen. The U.S. government, working with technology companies, is gradually adopting an agile approach that mirrors the start-up culture, where smart risk is encouraged and failed approaches are noted quickly and discarded. But the pace of innovation requires a different conversation than we had just a year ago. And it requires the U.S. to continue to enhance its “enabling” role, whether by directing efforts through funding tools, regulatory mechanisms, indirect and direct pressure or persuasion.

Once this happens, we will move considerably closer to a real and robust communication strategy — one capable of countering not only the Islamic State, but what will inevitably come after.

This article originally published in the January 2017 edition of Defense Dossier, a publication of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Robert Bole is Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.