West gathers digital arsenal against Islamic State — to what effect?

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The Islamic State hashtag (#ISIS) is seen typed into the Twitter application on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 6, 2016. Twitter Inc has shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group, the company said in a blog post on Friday. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ONLINE-ISIS, originally transmitted on Feb. 10, 2016.

The Islamic State hashtag (#ISIS) is seen typed into the Twitter application on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 6, 2016. Twitter Inc has shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group, the company said in a blog post on Friday. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dado Ruvic *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ONLINE-ISIS, originally transmitted on Feb. 10, 2016.

(RNS) Twitter recently announced it had suspended 125,000 accounts since the middle of 2015 “for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.”

The announcement came a couple weeks after Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg announced a partnership involving Facebook, the German government, academic researchers and others to combat online extremism and hate speech.

And earlier in January, national security officials held high-level meetings in Silicon Valley with representatives from leading tech companies to discuss online efforts to counter violent extremism — all the while touting two new government initiatives: the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Task Force.

All these efforts come in response to government pressure to slow the mobilization and recruitment of young people to the radical militant group ISIS, which has been so savvy in its use of social media.

But critics wonder whether this ramping up of the online war against the Islamic State group, which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria, is effective. And they wonder how to strike a balance between enforcing rules on prohibited behaviors and censorship of offensive views. More broadly, can hate speech be effectively fought online?


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Will McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings Institution and the author of a new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State,” said shutting down accounts, even if some of these efforts have a whack-a-mole feel, is a worthwhile effort.

“The harder it is for young people to find their way to ISIS propaganda, the better,” he said. “But ISIS will also innovate as a consequence and move to less conspicuous platforms to get its message out there.”

Nitin Agarwal, a professor of information science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, whose research into how ISIS uses social media is supported in part by a Defense Department grant, said suspending accounts on Twitter (or YouTube) stems the tide of propaganda, but only momentarily.

“Suspending accounts does not mean that the ideologies are suspended or the person(s) behind the accounts are suspended,” he wrote in an email. “The dilemma then is, if the accounts are suspended, one needs to find their new Twitter handles to train the behavioral models (that detect such behaviors), which poses a setback for the detection models.”

Last month, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Facebook’s Sandberg said the social media site is collaborating in snuffing out online hate.

“There is no place for hate and intolerance or calls for violence on our platform, and we do everything we can to take all of it down, not just the posts and the calls for violence but the people who are perpetrators of it,” Sandberg added.

But she said the network is also trying a new approach. Its Online Civil Courage Initiative wants to “get the right voices out.”

“The best thing to speak against ISIS is the voices of people who were recruited by ISIS, understood what the true experience is, have escaped and come back to tell the truth,” she said. “Amplifying those voices, counterspeech to the speech that’s perpetrating hate, is we think by far the best answer.”

As an example, she mentioned a neo-Nazi Facebook page in Germany that was transformed by “like” attacks — visitors “liked” the page and then flooded it with messages of tolerance.


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But the problem in trying to counter ISIS’ message is that the group spends much more time and resources on one-on-one interactions online.

As New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi detailed in a story about a lonely 23-year-old Sunday school teacher (in Washington state), ISIS spends months grooming recruits.  ISIS recruiters communicated with her via Skype and Twitter and sent her gifts. Before her grandmother, and then the FBI, intervened, she had planned to join ISIS in its homeland.

“I can be a lonely girl in rural America and still get connected to a global terror organization,” said Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist and consultant. “They (ISIS recruiters) gave her friendship, a community. Then layered in the religion.”

One-on-one interventions work better to discourage potential ISIS recruits than public service announcement-type campaigns, agreed Alberto Fernandez, who until last year ran the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (a predecessor to the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement).

Then there’s the problem of how to counter jihadist propaganda. Carl Ernst, professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the West lacks a clear ethical position.

“There is an immense sentiment of grievance, which is an argument that needs to be acknowledged,” he said. “If we just want jihadists to quit so we can enjoy capitalist prosperity while others starve in misery, who will be persuaded? With anti-Islamic rhetoric increasing, how can Muslims be persuaded that they have a real place in a community? The security regime is ill-equipped to promise inclusion with a straight face.”

While the online battlefield matters, many experts agree that defeating ISIS’ proto-state militarily is the first priority.

ISIS makes most of its money from taxing inhabitants of the areas it controls, which includes foreign fighters and local Iraqis and Syrians. With less territory, it will have fewer inhabitants, and thus less tax revenue to spend on its military and propaganda and recruitment operations, McCants said.

The Obama administration’s strangulation strategy, relying on air power to hit ISIS convoys and working with local militias to fight on the periphery, has already resulted in the Islamic State group losing 25 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq.

Then there’s the problem of overseas terrorism. Even if things are not going well with its proto-state, ISIS can still elevate its brand by launching terrorist strikes such as the one in Paris and brag about its insurgencies in weak states such as Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan.

“Nobody should refute the fact that the fight against ISIS in the physical domain is of course more important than the fight online,” said Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, speaking at Chatham House, a London think tank, last month (Jan. 18). “They are also not mutually exclusive. What happens with one impacts the other.”


RELATED STORY: To silence propaganda, Iraq seeks to take Islamic State offline


One potentially effective counterterrorism strategy is publicizing the West’s successes more, including summaries of airstrikes, targets hit and other basic information.

“We’re not explaining what’s happening,” said McCants. “We will say that they’ve lost 25 percent of their territory, but how did they lose it? Why did they lose it? That kind of information is not there.”

For now, experts see the Twitter announcement as a good start.

ISIS had much more freedom online a year ago, said Fernandez, who retired from the State Department last year and is now VP of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

“Twitter’s efforts are not a long-term solution to the problem of extremism,” he added.

“Tech companies are not better-equipped than government,” he said. “But they are — of course — more immediately involved in what is occurring on their own platforms, as they should be. You need both government and private sector to do their jobs.”

(Julie Poucher Harbin is an RNS correspondent)

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