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State Department faces criticism in uphill social media war against Islamic State group

October 22, 2014 at 9:16 PM EDT
Three teenage girls from Denver were detained in Germany last weekend by American authorities under suspicion of joining the Islamic State. The militant group lures recruits worldwide with a sophisticated social media operation. Margaret Warner reports on how the U.S. State Department is targeting the militant group's online recruitment campaign.
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GWEN IFILL: Late yesterday, word came that three teenage girls from the Denver area were detained over the weekend in Germany by American authorities. Their disappearance raised fears they were on their way to Syria to join the Islamic State group.

That’s because the militants have been luring recruits from around the world with a sophisticated Web-based media operation, a program the U.S. government is now targeting.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has the story.

And a warning:  It contains some graphic images.

MARGARET WARNER: The Islamic State group’s sweeping land grabs across Syria and Iraq this year have been matched by an online onslaught as well. The group posts videos documenting its brutality, the killings of soldiers, journalists, aid workers and citizens, and touting its military victories.

This one yesterday showed U.S. military equipment airdropped Sunday to Kurds fighting I.S. in the Syrian town of Kobani, but captured by the jihadis. Other postings offer idyllic visions of the so-called Islamic caliphate that the group aims to build across the Middle East.

MAN: You have to be here to understand what I’m saying.

MARGARET WARNER: Many are in English aimed at potential recruits well beyond the war zone. The U.S. government views this campaign as a major threat, as the then-chief of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen, recently made clear.

MATTHEW OLSEN, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center: ISIL disseminates timely and high-quality media content on multiple platforms, including on social media, all designed to secure a widespread following for the group.

MARGARET WARNER: Last month, President Obama urged his fellow leaders at the United Nations to join the fight against the Islamic State in the realm of ideas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That means contesting the space that terrorists occupy, including the Internet and social media. Their propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. State Department has jumped in on that effort with a very public online campaign across multiple platforms, Arabic-language videos assailing the Islamic State faction, to tit-for-tat Facebook and Twitter posts against I.S. supporters in a project dubbed Think Again, Turn Away aimed at dissuading potential I.S. recruits.

Here at the State Department, the 50-person project is run out of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. It’s been working in the anti-jihadi social media space in four foreign languages since 2010. This year, it added English. We weren’t permitted to film its operations center, but we were able to catch up with the man spearheading its latest efforts, former “TIME” magazine editor Richard Stengel, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

RICHARD STENGEL, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: What ISIL is doing is, it’s using social media and other platforms to try to get mindshare of people who would be sympathetic to their goals, young men that they’re trying to recruit. So when the president talks about contesting a space, he means get in there, intercede between ISIL and those young men.

MARGARET WARNER: The State Department has worked to persuade Islamic governments and religious leaders overseas to join the messaging campaign.

RICHARD STENGEL: We’re not always the best messenger for our message. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but part and parcel of what we’re trying to do is to enable and empower those better messengers than we are, those people who can say that this is illegitimate Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: But some of the State Department efforts have proven controversial, especially this video entitled “Welcome to Islamic State Land,” a collection of I.S.’s own gruesome videos, blurred here by the “NewsHour,” sarcastically labeled with lines like, “Run, do not walk to ISIS land, where you can learn useful skills, blowing up mosques, crucifying and executing Muslims.”

It was slammed by some critics as offensive, but Stengel makes no apologies.

RICHARD STENGEL: Some of the things that we do say in that space are things that make people uncomfortable because it’s a dark space. And to contest the space, you have to mirror some of the things people are hearing. I don’t think that we’re going to appeal to these young men by, you know, quotes from Thomas Jefferson about freedom and democracy either.

And, sometimes, when you lie down in the mud, you get mud on you, and that does happen.

PHILLIP SMYTH, University of Maryland: They were deliberately playing to a 21st century, kind of the latest generation, millennial generation of people who would be watching this and picking up on kind of the snark that’s in there.

MARGARET WARNER: Phillip Smyth, an expert on Islamist movements at the University of Maryland, says there are pitfalls to the U.S. government engaging more directly in social media. For one thing, he said it’s hard for a government to match the jihadis’ agility.

PHILLIP SMYTH: A lie can make its way halfway around the world before the truth can ever get its shoes on. They can act far more quickly than we can, because we have to go through a checklist in terms of what we are going to respond with and how we’re going to respond.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there limitations on what the United States government can do in that space, what you can say, that other actors out in the space don’t have?

RICHARD STENGEL: Yes, of course there are limits to what we can say.

They’re not bound by fidelity to the truth. They’re not bound by democratic values. They’re not bound by any of the things that we are.

MARGARET WARNER: Phillip Smyth voices another wide criticism, that by directly engaging with the militants in dueling postings, the U.S. government just elevates their stature.

PHILLIP SMYTH: A lot of them take it as a badge of — a special badge or a special medal, if you will, in kind of recognition for what they have done. If you’re doing a countermessaging strategy, maybe an official account isn’t always the best way to do it.

RICHARD STENGEL: There will be times that you’re dealing with people that you wouldn’t normally want to deal with, but that is the nature of the effort.

MARGARET WARNER: And how effective is this campaign? Charting that is a tricky business.

PHILLIP SMYTH: If the end goal is to turn people away from engaging in terrorism, I mean, there hasn’t really been any research that’s been published that could say it’s effective or ineffective.

MARGARET WARNER: Stengel, while admitting effectiveness is hard to track and prove, has a quick response to that.

RICHARD STENGEL: You can’t prove a negative, that what you’re not accomplishing. But, if you do, if you turn one young man away, think of the repercussions for that. You know, he could’ve put a roadside bomb somewhere. You know, he could have killed a family somewhere in Iraq or Syria. I mean, the — it’s incalculable, the value.

So I would say, yes, even though it’s hard to measure whether you’re accomplishing that, the fact is, the goal is so important and the value is so great, that you can’t stop doing it.

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