How to Stop Worrying about ISIS and Love Twitter

A speculative tour inside the coming social media crackdown on terrorism

What’s the chatter”?

“It’s great. I mean, it’s awful. For them. They’re considering dropping Twitter. Too much time, too little return. They haven’t recruited a single person willing to fly to Europe or try the Turkey border route in the last month.”

“Did anyone on our end notice the official account being switched to private?”

“Nope, or if they did, they aren’t saying anything.”

Phil stopped rocking in his chair. One of these days he was going to fall backwards, the way he leaned way, way back. He moved towards the keyboard and pulled up the tweets from the State Department Twitter account.

“Hold on, let me retweet the last tweet from the ‘Sally’ account — got to keep that baby looking a little active.”

Penny leaned in over his shoulder as he retweeted the last tweet that the State Department had put out from its anti-ISIS Twitter account. It read:

#ISIL #ISIS kills civilians, again in #Mosul. #UnitedAgainstDaesh #ISISKillsMuslims

Penny whistled, “Good work ‘Sally’,” she said. You could hear the air quotes around Sally — the smiling brunette from the fake Twitter account.

“Well that’s three retweets. You sure they didn’t notice that the account has gone private?”

Phil shrugged. “They don’t know or they don’t care. Does it matter which?”

Just then, Phil’s phone let out a ping. He looked down.

“Crap, the boss is coming down with some big honchos,” he said. Penny looked at him with alarm. “Let’s go. Gotta get Hannah out of here.”

Phil logged out and they both headed out the door down the winding corridor hung with photos of ambassadors and flags from nations around the world. At last they arrived at a dead end with a door marked “AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.”

Phil swiped his card, the light turned green and the lock chirped open. They walked in.

“Hannah,” Penny said, as cheerily as she could. “What’s good?”

The greeting seemed to sail over the ponytailed head seated at the desk in front of them. The duo shifted uncomfortably in their well-heeled shoes as their quarry typed away in jeans and a t-shirt without looking up or missing a beat.

At last she looked up. Hannah was appreciative of the effort to sound hip, and she had decided to try to roll her eyes less often.

“Penny! Reading the Urban Dictionary, again, I see,” she smiled.

Penny smiled. “Yeah, thanks for telling me about it. I’m going to sound so hip when I meet my nephews and nieces at Thanksgiving. I’ve got three months to practice! Speaking of Thanksgiving, my, I’m hungry. Very hungry. Want to go to lunch?”

Hannah rolled her eyes.

“Big honchos coming down again?” she said.

“Hey, I’m buying,” Phil volunteered.

“It’s only 10AM,” Hannah groaned.

“Please?” Phil pleaded.

“Think of the children,” Penny flashed a wide grin.

Hannah slammed her laptop, and got up from the purple exercise ball she had been sitting on.

“Okay. You guys and your bosses are weird,” she sighed.

Phil was apologetic. “Look, we have a presentation coming up next week, and as soon as we can show the stellar results from your work these past two months, we feel like we can, you know, come out,” he said as all three of them walked out of the room, into the long corridor. They had made it about a third of the way towards the intersection when four men in dark blue suits turned the corner, busy chatting among them. Penny, looking panicked, turned towards the first door on the right and ushered everyone in. She didn’t need to swipe her card to get in; they were now, all three, in a closet with cleaning supplies.

“This is idiotic,” Hannah half-cursed, half-muttered.

“Ssshhhh,” both of them said in unison. They waited till the footsteps passed them, and the distant sound of a door opening and closing. Then they all got out, slightly embarrassed and made their way onto the cafeteria. There was no food, since it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. They grabbed coffee.

“Look, if I’ve been so successful, why hide me?”

“Your name is on all the reports already. Don’t worry, this isn’t about stealing your thunder. You’ve been amazing. It’s just you know…” Phil started.

“...bureaucracies are complicated and some of our managers are a little old-fashioned about who they think can get the job done,” Hannah completed. She’d heard it so many times before.

“Okay, whatever. I’m not doing this for you anyway. And the fact that I’m nineteen should not be such a big obstacle. And I don’t think I violate the dress code; I don’t wear torn jeans. Anyway, have the mofos been able to get a single American on a plane last month? Did they even come close? I’ve thwarted every attempt we found.”

“Your work’s on fleek,” Penny tried.

That finally got Hannah smiling. “You’ve really been reading the urban dictionary?”

Penny grinned wide: “Look, I know it feels unfair that we’ve been hiding you from the bosses, but we’ve all put our careers on the line here. We’ll bring you out. If you want. But let’s get through this presentation, first, huh? Show the results. I’ve got the draft presentation and the slides here, so think of this as a working coffee rather than hiding-Hanna-from-boss-again lunch?”

Hannah leaned in and started reading. “Well, the theory is almost right. Here, let me try to explain it again,” she sighed.

“Why does a teenager join ISIS?” she asked, rhetorically. “It’s because she’s bored, so bored that she’d rather die than be bored another day, or she’s angry, so angry that she wants something to show the world how angry she is. So you have to interrupt the boredom/anger/discovery/amazement loop before it hardens.”

“Hah, you got the loop thing,” Phil said.

“If you can study the urban dictionary, I can read your OODA loops,” Hannah said. “So take your bored teenager? What’s the best way to make things less boring for him?”

“Have the State Department get into an argument with him on Twitter,” they said in unison.

“Right. That’s why we took that official account private. Good work, Phil, doing that without the other department noticing. No harm, no foul until someone notices that nobody but the existing followers are seeing those tweets.”

“It was like Philip Morris advertising ‘smoking is not for teenagers; only adults’,” Penny remembered and scribbled it down.

“That’s right,” Hannah said. “Telling kids that smoking is an adult decision is not an anti-smoking ad, it’s the best smoking ad ever. So you don’t do that. Well, unless you’re Philip Morris.”

Hannah continued: “Take your angry teenager. The one that is so pissed off at everything. What would please her most? That’s right. The chance to join the most hated thing in the world. So what do we do?”

“We distract,” Penny said, crossing out a word in the printout. “We distract because anger cannot be met with anger. Anger met with anger escalates.”

“That’s right,” said Hannah. “And Penny, how did you get Zayn Malik to retweet the kid in Idaho? That was a feat of brilliance. By the time she was done with the whole flow, she was so much less interested in that ISIS dude that had been chatting her up.”

Penny smiled. “State Department has resources. And friends. We’re not just a bunch of boring and uncool old folks, you know. Well we are, but we have friends.”

Hannah continued: “Let’s see. We have the slide with the bored/ignore; anger/distract bit. We have the slide about the accounts we set up that bicker with other ISIS accounts on the ‘One True Way to Jihad’. Good idea, Phil.”

Phil was pleased at the praise. “Well, the left already does this internal bickering to paralysis, and ISIS and Al Qaeda do that anyway, too, just not in English. I’ve basically been translating the insults Al Qaeda and ISIS folks have been hurling at each other and putting them in our own fake pro-ISIS or pro-AQ accounts.”

Hannah smiled back. “Yeah, nothing better to make sure these guys are exposed as the jerks.”

Hannah got serious. “Where are we with Twitter suspending their accounts without an email that contains the name old account? So that they can’t use it to verify the next account they create? And use the suspension like a badge of honor?”

Phil replied: “Any day now. They said they’ll probably have to change it or everyone but they don’t want to do that. They were looking to see if they can send different suspension emails to just ISIS accounts but were wondering if that would also be a badge of honor.”

Hannah shrugged: “As long as it did not verify them as owner of the old account, it doesn’t really matter. Just make sure the email is as generic as possible so it can be copied easily — so we can set up our own accounts claiming to be reincarnated ISIS accounts as well. Confusion. We’re All Spartacus, you know.”

Penny kept scribbling. “Did you learn all this in just three months at Vice”?

Hannah looked offended. “Four months at Al Jaz plus; three months at Buzzfeed; two months at Vice,” she corrected. “I didn’t just work at Vice. I have nine months under my belt as a social media manager. Practically a lifetime.”

“Can you get the President to stop talking so much about ISIS”?

Phil whistled. “Well, miss nine-months-under-my-belt, that’s a big ask, no?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “Look, you hired me to make sure ISIS can’t recruit random American teenagers. I’ve been doing my job. In my professional opinion,” she continued, emphasizing professional, “the less these psychopaths are in the public eye here, the harder it is for them to recruit the random lost kid in Idaho.”

Phil replied: “Yeah, but these psychopaths are kind of a big problem over there and after last year’s San Bernandino attack, this became a big thing for domestic politics.”

Hannah rolled her eyes again. “The San Bernandino duo attacked the holiday party and killed just about as many people as the crazy dude in Aurora who thought he was Joker and dyed his hair flaming red, ya know. I mean, it sucks and all, but it wasn’t any sign of smarts. Two rando killers. Another day in America.”

Phil sighed. “But it’s politics. We have to work with the parameters we got.”

Hannah didn’t roll her eyes. She was becoming jaded, in just two months after starting this job. She paged through the presentation. “27 recruitment attempts intercepted. 20 through distraction online. 7 covert interventions in person. 456 suspended accounts cannot find their way back to the main network through the confusion. 73 hashtags hijacked. Looks good to me”

“Man, this is lousy coffee. You know, we had a real barista at Buzzfeed.” She put down the cup.

“Wait,” she flipped through the last pages. “You won’t tell them that we took the main State Department Anti-ISIS account private”?

“No,” both of them said in unison. Penny explained: “That will be our secret. Maybe they’ll discover it, maybe they won’t. Hopefully, too late. Anyway, that’s run from another department and we’d have to convince three layers up and then have it go down three layers before anything could be done. Even if we started now, it would take months.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “So we don’t have to tell them not to hashtag everything?”

Phil shrugged. “If a hashtag falls in a forest?”

“Whatev,” Hannah got up. “You don’t understand my world, I don’t understand yours. Can we get back now? I’ve got a seventeen year old in Oregon to distract. Turning eighteen in two months, so I gotta get this one done before it goes all legal.”

She walked back towards the cafeteria exit, red sneakers squeaking with each step on the gray tiles.