America’s New Plan to Fight ISIS Online

In this Sunday, March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah.

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In this Sunday, March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah.

The State Department will diversify its one-way approach, while other agencies reach out to Silicon Valley.

On Friday, State Department officials announced that they would revamp their efforts to counter ISIS messaging online — among other ways, by opening a new “Global Engagement Center.” That same day, the President and various high-ranking members of the national security establishment met with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other Internet powerhouses to discuss how the United States can fight ISIS messaging via social media.

But recently released documents from the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office show that the government is planning an aggressive and multi-faceted campaign whether or not it has the cooperation of social media companies or telecommunications companies.

The first priority for the State Department’s new Center will be to avoid the mistakes of the past. The “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign, which had but 20 staffers, five or which were from the Defense Department, drew much criticism. Part of the problem: it didn’t engage people in the Muslim world directly. Rather it was a one-way communications channel with all the persuasiveness of a government anti-litter campaign.

State’s new Center aims to have more engagement with third parties and people that can actually engage with humans on social networks, not just post messages at them; and it will use data to tailor messages and campaigns. The Center will also provide “seed funding and other support to NGOs and media startups focused on countering violent extremist messaging,” according to a statement.

Read that to mean more funding for marketing groups, NGOs, and others on the ground in countries where the U.S. is working to counter ISIS messaging. Those recommendations are in line with what many have said the State Department should have been doing all along.

They also echo some of the changes that Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, said that he wanted to make.

“As things are developed, just as our enemies target specific audiences, we … have to have unique messages directed to these nine different bins,” Lumpkin told a House Armed Services Committee Hearing last fall. Lumpkin will be leaving his position with the Defense Department to lead the new Center, the Defense Department confirmed.

The meeting on Friday suggests that the United States is seriously looking to enlist Silicon Valley in this effort. But a recent broad agency announcement from the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, or CTTSO, shows that they’re ready to proceed with new counter-messaging efforts on social media regardless of what they do or do not get out of Silicon Valley. The BAA is a wishlist, of sorts. One of the key items is an Tactical Information Warfare Capability, which the BAA defines as a tool to “engage populations across numerous forms of communication means, simultaneously, through a simple single interface, without the requirement for interconnectivity agreements with social media providers or telecommunications companies.” (Italics inserted.)

That suggests a couple of things. The CTTSO doesn’t hold out much hope for any agreements between the White House and Silicon Valley and, if those agreements impose limitations, CTTSO is willing to do what it needs to, regardless.

No social media company is eager embrace ISIS, but different platforms have different approaches to dealing with extremists. On one end of the spectrum is Facebook, which already takes an aggressive approach to keeping ISIS off the network, banning not only violent videos and speech but “content that expresses support for groups that are involved in the violent or criminal behavior mentioned above. Supporting or praising leaders of those same organizations, or condoning their violent activities.” Twitter, meanwhile, has terms of service rules that forbid posting explicit or violent content. But a simple statement or support for a group like ISIS is a much murkier matter. By some estimates, there are 45,000 pro-ISIS accounts on Twitter; estimats go as high as 90,000. But Twitter isn’t the only platform to which ISIS turns to get its message out. They also use a service called Telegram, among others, and use direct messaging on Twitter as well as public posts. That blend of targeted and public messages is key to the group’s recruiting efforts, as documented by New York Times writer Rukmini Callimachi in a June story.

If ISIS can use Twitter and other social networks to distribute propaganda content in a targeted, individual way, it stands to reason that the U.S. government would want to at least do the same, even if Silicon Valley is wary of appearing too close to the President.

Rand Waltzman, a former program manager with the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or DARPA, believes that the announced changes don’t go nearly far enough. While at DARPA, he ran a nearly $50 million “Social Media in Strategic Communication” program to reveal how extremists, and other potential adversaries, are able to use social media effectively. Walzman has long argued that the way that some in government interpret some U.S. laws put unnecessary obstacles in the way of conducting effective online outreach and communication. For instance, counter messaging on social media, if the content reaches U.S. audiences as well, could be problematic under  US Law 50 U.S. Code § 3093(f), according to some.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. is unable to effectively take advantage of social media and the Internet due to poorly conceived U.S. policies and antiquated laws. For example, US Law 50 U.S. Code § 3093(f) effectively prohibits our intelligence community from action ‘intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media,’” he wrote last year in TIME magazine.

He described the announcement of the new Center as little more than a cheap ruse.

“I don’t know if I would exactly use the word ‘fraudulent’ to describe the President’s planned ‘shake-up in propaganda war against ISIS’ — perhaps Potemkin Scenery is a more accurate term. But whichever term you use, I am confident that the result will be the same: nothing,” he said.

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