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Could online counter-narratives help curb ISIS's influence?

The government is collaborating with Facebook, Twitter, and other tech firms to support online campaigns that counter extremists' recruiting efforts.

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    An iPhone shows the Twitter and Facebook apps among others in May 2013. The Obama administration is partnering with Twitter and other tech firms to fund educational groups and others to create 'counter-messages' aimed at blunting the influence of extremist groups online.
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After the San Bernardino terror attack in December, President Obama pointed to online campaigns launched by groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and called for collaboration between technology firms and law enforcement officials to “make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

While discussion around unlocking an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters has sparked a public debate between Apple and the Justice Department, another, possibly wider-reaching aspect of the president’s efforts is taking shape.

Concerned about the effectiveness of terrorists' online recruiting efforts, the government is increasingly turning to tech firms and educational groups to launch digital campaigns that can provide “counter-narratives” aimed at blunting the online influence of extremist groups.

Recommended: Eight faces of ISIS in America

On Wednesday, the Justice Department met with representatives from Google, Twitter, and Facebook to discuss how the social media companies could work to disrupt the sometimes slick online campaigns employed by IS and other groups to recruit members.

Previous campaigns launched by the administration have been criticized as too reliant on graphic imagery that played on people’s fear of terrorism.

With a move away from campaigns created by the government, the goal has shifted to helping “communities and young people to amplify their own messages,” George Selim, director of the Homeland Security office that coordinates the government’s “countering violent extremism” activities, told Reuters.

Tech companies and the administration are partnering to fund “peer to peer” college courses that teach students how to create their own anti-extremist messages.

One project, unveiled at a Facebook event to showcase the counter-messaging efforts, included a video from the University of Arkansas that set graphic footage of Islamic State executions set to the song “War Pigs” by the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

Halfway through the video, the music switched to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” as captions prompted viewers to “raise a flag” against extremism.

But one judge in the Facebook contest noted that many of the images in the video had likely been used in IS recruiting videos, and said the violent images could work against their intended effect.

“We’ve had this problem in other places where people try to instill fear in target audiences by showing all this mayhem, but it actually does the reverse with some,” noted the judge, Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House director for community partnerships.

Whether such counter-messaging efforts can be effective in the long term also remains to be seen.

A Facebook-based study of online campaigns in four European countries, conducted by the British research group Demos, struggled to analyze the effects of online campaigns.

It was “extremely difficult to calculate with any degree of precision,” whether counter-message campaigns have a definite impact on the longer-term attitudes or offline behavior of people who see them, it concluded.

Facebook has also sponsored efforts to create counter-messaging by offering students limited budgets and $200 in ad credits from the site, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Other educational groups have taken a different approach. WORDE, a Muslim educational organization, launched a campaign last week to counter IS messages with its own catchy videos and live broadcasts that discuss mainstream Islam. The group hopes to measure the impact of the campaign through software or survey questions.

“Everybody creates stuff but doesn't really care about whether it's connected to the science of evaluations,” Hedieh Mirahmadi, the group’s president, told Reuters.

The meeting to discuss the government's effort to counter extremism, dubbed “Madison Valleywood” in an apparent portmanteau of common nicknames for advertising, technology, and the movie industry, included invitations to 50 tech companies, CNN reports.

Apple attended, despite its widely publicized conflict with the Justice Department over unlocking the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. 

Government officials at the meeting reportedly praised the efforts by social sites such as Twitter and Facebook to block and take down accounts linked to extremist groups

Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told meeting participants, “We've seen more aggressive takedowns across social media platforms, which is a really good thing," an industry source told CNN.

Civil liberties groups have debated how the sites decide to take down content, particularly noting the vague language around what content can be removed.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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