How to counter the Islamic State on Twitter

American efforts to date have ranged from snarky responses meant to put down Islamic State tweeters to truth-telling campaigns. But the role of the US government in any of these endeavors is tricky and potentially alienating, analysts say.

Leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivers a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance, last July.

The social media forays of the Islamic State (IS) range from the jarringly adolescent to sophisticated advertising campaigns meant to portray extremism as a normal lifestyle decision.

These include Twitter feeds aimed at women, with pictures of kittens and designer shoes tweeted alongside jihadist rhetoric and snapshots of children in IS fan gear, “much as children are dressed in favorite football team jerseys,” notes Christina Schori Liang, senior fellow in the Emerging Security Challenges program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

While these efforts have prompted popular movements to oppose the IS message, including online vigilante groups of women known as the Anonymisses, the US government has been grappling mightily with how it, too, can counter IS rhetoric in the social media realm.

The efforts to date have ranged from clever and snarky responses meant to put down IS tweeters to truth-telling campaigns designed to deflate the idyllic picture that IS, also known as ISIS, paints of its rule. But how, precisely, to “flip” the IS narrative?

The possibilities might include giving former foreign fighters a platform to discuss how their perception of joining IS did not match up with the reality, and figuring out how to create an atmosphere that encourages the sorts of organic social media outpourings that happened in the wake of the Sydney, Australia, shootings by an IS sympathizer last year. It may also require having a "mature" discussion, analysts add, about the US policies that have created animosity among so many in the Arab world.

Still, the role of the US government in any of these endeavors is tricky and potentially alienating, analysts say.

“You have to look at why the Islamic State has been attracting people. It’s not just that they’re good at social media. They have a story to tell – that they have established an actual state. That they are fulfilling prophecy,” says William McCants, who from 2009 to 2011 served as the State Department’s senior adviser for countering violent extremism.

The message is “a powerful recruiting tool” for IS, he adds. That means for the US and others, “it’s not as simple as putting out a different message [from IS] or trying to undermine their message with a more sarcastic message.”

Indeed, US government social media responses tend to be “viewed as inauthentic, snarky – sort of marked already by US policy in the region,” says Nicholas Heras, a researcher in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Pentagon efforts in this area can also “take on the connotation of a psy-op,” or psychological operation, an even bigger hurdle to overcome, he adds. “I’m skeptical about how we can even create a formal anti-IS social media program.”

Not that governments don’t try. The US military has an active social media presence. The British Army has created a special force, the 77th Brigade of “Facebook warriors,” skilled in psychological operations. The French Ministry of the Interior has created a website with stark language, aimed at discouraging young people: “They say ‘sacrifice yourself with us, you will defend a just cause.’ In reality, you will discover hell on earth and die alone, away from home.”

Officials from the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) have said that what the center really needs is its own “fan club,” or “knights of uploading,” as the IS calls its support network.

One option that involves direct US government assistance – from a safe distance – is to put American funds into training youth, alternative, and local media, Mr. Heras says. “The best anti-IS messaging comes from locals, from Syrians who are active on social media. They craft messages far more effectively and are really in the know about the on-the-ground impact of IS campaigns.”

This might include former IS fighters who come forward to share their experience. But simply decrying the brutality of IS may play into the hands of aspiring fighters.

“We think that exposing their extreme violence is going to be off-putting, but ISIS is celebrating that kind of violence,” says Mr. McCants, who is now director of the Project on US Relations With the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Yet countering the perceptions of what the fighting life is actually like could be another matter.

“Finding some former ISIS fighter talking about how awful it was, the racism he encountered, that the brutality wasn’t what he signed up for – that stuff can pack a punch,” McCants says, adding that it doesn’t tend to be governments, but news outlets like the Bill Maher-affiliated Vice “that are talking to real, honest-to-God people and trying to get insight.” 

Messages are “always more powerful when they’re organic and the public is driving it,” he says.

The #illridewithyou campaign that cropped up in Sydney on the heels of a gunman in a cafe proclaiming an affinity for IS helped to counter creeping Islamophobia in the aftermath. As part of the campaign, thousands of people offered to meet Muslims at transportation hubs to accompany them on their journey.

“What was beautiful about what happened in Australia is that it was by all accounts something that happened spontaneously,” Heras says.

The best way to help encourage those sorts of campaigns is to “create an atmosphere domestically where communities feel included and are not labeled terrorists,” he adds. “That’s something that’s difficult to measure; it’s an intrinsic value.

“In this day and age, there’s a great temptation to try to create a program to engender something like that,” he notes. “Really all you can do is support these values and hope that it’s the message [they inspire].”

Part of supporting these values should not involve shutting down the Twitter accounts of those who promulgate even “repugnant ideas,” argues Yasir Kazi, a Muslim cleric and assistant professor in religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

“We betray our own values [of free speech] when we shut down these sites, especially when we only do it for ISIS and not for home-grown [American] militias of the far-right,” he says. “When we apply it to Muslim radicals, once again this impression is given that this war is only against Islam.”

“These tactics further enrage our youth and make them feel as if the government is out to get them,” he adds. “If anything, these tactics encourage, rather than discourage, radicalism.”

US efforts to counter social media hatred should also include some “mature” foreign policy assessments, Dr. Kazi says. “It must involve having a frank discussion about what we ourselves have done to generate so much animosity against us as a nation.”

He mentions the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the more than 500,000 Iraqis who died in the decade after the US war there started in 2003, according to a 2013 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington. That figure includes people who died from bombings as well as from war-related causes – for example, a pregnant woman who encountered difficult labor but could not reach a hospital because of fighting, the study says.

“So somebody’s got to ask, ‘What’s going to be the impact of these deaths? Where is that anger going to be directed?’ ” adds Kazi, who has been threatened with death by IS.

“Then we can tell ISIS, as Muslim clerics, ‘We’re also angry at the bombs, at our own foreign policy. But we ask you, do you think the religion of Islam will tell you that you should indiscriminately kill and perpetrate violence against innocent people?’ ”

Despite the volume of IS social media, it’s important to keep it all in perspective, says J.M. Berger, social media analyst and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror.”

“The first thing we need to do is recognize how successful we already are. ISIS represents the fringe of the fringe,” he says.

In a one-month period Mr. Berger studied last year, he found that there were some 46,000 accounts for ISIS followers, while Twitter has roughly 288 million users around the world. “That’s a percentage of a percentage.”

The reason they are able to achieve some resonance is due to a numbing level of repetitive activity that only dedicated followers can stand, he adds. “They can produce just enough activity to bridge from Twitter to mainstream media.” 

Their activities get pickup from media outlets because occasionally what they tweet is newsworthy for, say, national security reporters who cover the Middle East. As a result, “What we really lack is a sense of perspective about how fringe these guys are and how they have had limited success.”

The good news is that today, a number of social media activists in the Muslim community “are looking to try to create countering narratives and to use smart social media savvy to put out a competing message,” Berger says. 

They may run headlong into the same problem ISIS has had – namely, “how patient are people going to be with being spammed with positive messages?” he notes. “But I think there’s progress to be made – and a lot of creative people doing it.”

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