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Recruiting college students to fight extremists online

January 30, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
The federal government has launched an initiative to counter violent extremism among potential homegrown terrorists. Part of the effort enlists college students to develop an online campaign and social media strategy against ISIS propaganda. NewsHour's Christopher Booker reports.
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CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: At the midday formation at the U.S Military Academy at West Point every cadet is subject to inspection.  

The way they stand, salute, and march is part of their development of a U.S Army officer.

But across this Hudson River campus in the basement of the social sciences building a new aspect of cadet education is underway.

While lacking the ritual and repetition that dominate this prestigious 214-year-old academy, the virtual warfare tactics explored in this counter-terrorism elective may one day prove to be as integral as the midday formation.  

COL. BRYAN PRICE: Information has always been crucial to warfare, and so when you take a look at propaganda, over the years it’s always influenced the fight in some capacity.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price directs West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

COL. BRYAN PRICE: If you take a look at the dollars that the United States government is putting into its counter-narrative campaign and then you compare it to the emphasis that organizations like the Islamic state is placing on it I think we are operating at a deficit.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is running a 21st century social media blitz, and its preferred platform is Twitter.

Cadets in this classroom are one of 45 college teams developing an online campaign against extremists.  The cadets are part of a “peer to peer” competition sponsored by the U.S. state department, the department of Homeland Security, Facebook, and EdVenture Partners.

COL. BRYAN PRICE: This is the demographics and the generation that the Islamic state and other jihadist organizations are targeting. So why not utilize what appeals to that generation?

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The target of Price’s class is what they call “fence sitters” — people who may or may not be interested in joining ISIS or other jihadi groups.  Using a multi-platform approach, they hope to surreptitiously lure social media users already engaged in conversations surrounding “jihad,” and other extremist ideas to their own website, Facebook page, twitter account, and YouTube channel

We have obscured the social media pages to avoid compromising the cadets ongoing campaign.

COL. BRYAN PRICE: We are not thinking that we are going to create a social media campaign that is going to stop card carrying members of the Islamic State and have them put down their arms. What we’re trying to do is to identify at risk youth and create a community online to which they can go get answers, information about the Islamic State. About jihad. About Islam.  And those folks that haven’t quite made up their mind yet.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The cadets are searching for ways to insert their messages into the broader social media conversation – all without being detected as West Point cadets.  Sometimes they do this by exploiting the use of twitter hashtags.

COL. BRYAN PRICE: The Islamic state does a very good job of utilizing trending hashtags in order to get on sites, and get on people– people’s twitter feeds, where they wouldn’t normally be on there.  For example, so, if the super bowl was trending, they will include whatever messages they want, but they all include the hashtag, #superbowl. And so we are trying, utilizing some of those same techniques.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Direct messaging also allows the cadets to interact one on one with users.

CJ DREW: This is someone from the Middle East in our 18 to 40 age bracket, telling us we have a nice page.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: During our visit, the cadets said they received a Facebook message from someone they believed to be in the Middle East. Senior CJ Drew was one of the first to read it.

CJ DREW: In this in this instance, we were reached out to by a person who had seen our page. And the first thing that came up to them was jihad.  And they looked like they were a fence-sitter or someone we consider to be vulnerable to targeting by ISIS, and they wanted more information and they wanted to engage us and tell us what jihad meant to them.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Drew, who speaks Arabic, says their posts need to

balance writing in English and other languages to look as authentic as possible. If a post has too much polish, the team risks exposing itself.

CJ DREW: We had a couple times where I was able to use hashtags that ISIS uses a lot, especially after the Paris attacks. And we had multiple conversations with some of ’em.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: While West Point’s approach is to enter a conversation already underway, this New York University graduate class is looking for individuals who might not be in the the conversation at all.

The class created the number “7 train stop” project — named after the New York City subway line that runs through the city’s most diverse borough, Queens.

The online platform encourages immigrants to share their experiences living in the borough. NYU professor Colette Mazzucelli teaches the class.

COLETTE MAZZUCELLI: We wanted to really focus on the difficulties, the vulnerabilities of immigrant integration and the ways in which immigrants are vulnerable. They might be more prone to indoctrination so we felt that we wanted to emphasize both the diversity of the area, the integration that comes with that, as well as the need to really be aware that indoctrination happens when communities are vulnerable.  And therefore we have to promote this idea of the american narrative, which is to integrate these immigrants in these communities, well into their new environments.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: In the United States, the number of individuals radicalized by ISIS is believed to be lower than in Europe but is also believed to be increasing.  So far, the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against about 80 people for ISIS-related activities — 61 cases last year – the most new cases in any year since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

SEAMUS HUGHES: Social media plays a big role in the recruitment of Americans who join ISIS.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, is the co-author of “ISIS in America: From retweets to Raqqa.

SEAMUS HUGHES: We don’t have communities that radicalize in the U.S. We have individuals. They are going online, and they are finding like-minded individuals, they are not finding it at mosques and community centers.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Hughes says radical messages online are like an echo

Chamber.

SEAMUS HUGHES: We look at about 300 accounts of Americans we believe to be ISIS supporters online, over a six-month period, and what we saw is they didn’t hear dissenting voices. They only heard what they wanted to hear. They were only pushing the propaganda that they believed in, so when you have people trying to interject themselves into the conversation, they were quickly pushed out.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Last year Hughes monitored an alleged ISIS supporter  — an Ohio  man who called himself “lone wolf” on Twitter. Twitter regularly suspended his account, only to see “lone wolf” return again and again. The user was eventually arrested after he allegedly released the home addresses of U.S. soldiers and urged people to kill them.

SEAMUS HUGHES: It’s very hard to try to figure out when someone’s gonna make that leap over to militancy.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The Peer 2 Peer competition that NYU and West Point are involved in, also called P2P, is part of the State Department’s acknowledgement that it needs to change its approach.

EVAN RYAN: What we need to do is get in the middle and get in the middle so that we can actually reach people who are at risk of recruitment.

Evan Ryan is the Assistant Secretary of State for education and cultural affairs and a P2P competition judge.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The U.S. State Department, for lack of a better term, has struggled in this space, why do you think that is?

EVAN RYAN: Well listen, we can’t do this on our own. We need to work with partners across the board, and that’s what we are doing with this program  P2P, working with university students, but we are reaching out broadly, to organizations, the private sector, other entities, putting minds together to think about how we can best address this problem.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: And one of the big questions, I guess, surrounding these private partnerships is their dealings overseas. Obviously Facebook, Twitter, these are global users, so they are juggling a lot of parameters, is it difficult to bring them into the fold?

EVAN RYAN: I think they understand this is where this demographic that we are trying to reach lives today. They live online. They live on these platforms, so when we are able to sit down with a Facebook and have them as a partner that is really important to us and we are looking forward to establishing more partnerships just like that.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: The P2P competition is not the first time the state department has experimented in this space. Until last year, Alberto Fernandez was State’s Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.  

To counter extremist propaganda, his team launched the “Think Again, Turn Away,” campaign, which included the release of the video titled  “Welcome to the Islamic State land,” a graphic, minute-long video meant to undercut the group’s message with satire.

ALBERTO FERNANDEZ: What we tried to do when I was there is we tried to be extreme and radical and we were too extreme and too radical for government, but not extreme and radical enough for the challenge we face, so we kind of fell between two stools.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Now with the Middle East Media Research Institute, Fernandez says while the P2P competition is step in the right direction, it is only a small part of the new strategy needed.  

ALBERTO FERNANDEZ: So  if you are talking about a revolutionary insurgent organization, which is the Islamic state, it is going to take a while for government to turn that old battle ship around.  I think the idea that, with all due respect, that West Point cadets are going to be able to do that deep dive, to have that time to follow through and the depth to do it is probably unlikely.
CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Perhaps, but the scale of the task does not seem to bother these cadets. In this competition of 45 teams, their entry was selected as one of three finalists. Next month, they will head to the Washington to present their project.

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