Commentary

U.S., UK Battle ISIS On Social Media

The terrorist group Islamic State, better known as “the worst people in the world,” has shown itself expert in its use of social media to further its horrifying cause -- using channels like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to disseminate propaganda, raise funds, entice new recruits, and inspire fear with video and images of its atrocities. And while defeating ISIS will doubtless require a substantial military effort, the U.S. and UK are also taking the fight to social media with “counter-messaging” intended to discourage recruiting and publicize the misery of ordinary people living under the ISIS reign of terror.

This week The New York Times reported that the State Department is expanding its Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Measures and making it responsible for coordinating the social media efforts of various teams in the CIA, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. Acknowledging that direct messages from the U.S. government are unlikely to resonate with the target audience of susceptible young Muslims, the center will use social media to aggregate and “amplify” anti-ISIS messages from allies, non-governmental organizations, news reports, and Muslim religious figures and community leaders.

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The center will also respond to specific social media posts by ISIS, contesting their narratives and the credibility of those posting them. To illustrate the scope of the task, Pentagon officials told the NYT that ISIS members are tweeting and posting to other social media sites around 90,000 times per day. Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs Richard A. Stengel (a former editor of Time magazine) told the NYT: “We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content.”

Similar efforts will be employed to combat other groups or individuals using social media to spread violent extremism in the U.S. and Europe.

In the same vein, earlier this month the British Army revealed that it has formed a psychological warfare brigade with up to 2,000 personnel who will use social media, among other channels, to counter violent extremism and influence public opinion by targeting “audiences” of allies and enemies. The 77th Brigade will also employ deception to confuse enemies about the plans and intentions of the U.K. and its allies.

The new psy-ops brigade’s range of activities could extend well beyond groups like ISIS, as social media has shown itself to be a key battlefield for creating and shaping public opinion in all kinds of conflicts, including for example Russia’s continuing campaign of destabilization in the Ukraine. In fact British Army chief Sir Nicholas Carter said the brigade was inspired in part by the Russian doctrine of “maskirovka” or military deception, which has been defined as “Deliberately misleading the enemy with regard to [one’s] own intentions causing the opponent to make wrong decisions, thereby playing into your own hand.”

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