As government efforts to challenge terrorist propaganda online are often met with distrust by the very people they are trying to reach, the private sector has moved in to help navigate and confront the fraught social media landscape where extremist groups look for individuals to radicalize.
Countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts largely focus on trying to dissuade individuals from acts of violence or from adopting extremist ideologies, and confronting extremist messaging online has been a major part of recent work to counter the threat of homegrown terrorism. Along with focusing on on-the-ground work at the community level, campaigns on social media are a key part of CVE — but some recent efforts have been hit with extensive criticism and ridicule from both the public at large and extremists themselves.
“The private sector absolutely has a role to play in the counterterrorism space because of how extremists are using essentially private sector tools to communicate and radicalize,” David Ibsen, the executive director for the non-profit Counter Extremism Project, said. “That being said, the objective of a social media company is not necessarily to ensure public safety — it’s to make money. But there’s ultimately a public safety element there.”
On the government side, a number of departments have looked to boost their CVE efforts this year. The interagency group Global Engagement Center is new on the scene, working to coordinate U.S. counter-messaging to foreign audiences. The center was established in March and emerged in the wake of the State Department’s earlier effort, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), that produced videos and Twitter campaigns, such as “Think Again Turn Away,” that many panned as embarrassing failures. State and USAID, meanwhile, issued their first joint CVE strategy in May, while earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced a grant program to dole out $10 million in funding for community-led initiatives.
Encouraging tech leaders to fight extremism has also emerged as a key line for the government. For instance, at June’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Secretary of State John Kerry called on the tech industry to create new products “to tackle the enormous global challenges we face.”
While ISIS has emphasized its holding of territory as key to its strategy, the terrorist group has equally focused on mobilizing, inspiring, and ultimately animating individuals to carry out acts of violence. Much of that effort takes place online, on social media networks — and trying to develop effective counter-messaging to ISIS and other terrorist groups has been a struggle for the government and private sector alike.
That threat will not dissipate as ISIS loses territory, experts warn, given the group’s focus on inspiring individuals outside their direct territorial sphere. And other terrorist organizations have seen the impact of ISIS’ social media footprint, increasing their own presence online and reminding those working in the CVE sphere that even as ISIS remains at the forefront of many efforts today, deep challenges from multiple arenas remain.
“Even if ISIS loses military territory, it’s going to pop up in some other parts of the world in some way, shape or form,” Khuram Zaman, a digital strategist at marketing technology firm Fifth Tribe who has worked on CVE campaigns, said. “All these groups are still out there, the old groups are still around — and even as we’re building solutions to target ISIS, we need to think beyond them.”
A new report out this month from the London-based think tank, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), looked at three campaigns that were promoted on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Funded by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and with additional in-kind and financial support from Facebook and Twitter, the study examined using social media advertising tools to target potential extremists.
Private sector social media companies “have an immense role to play, and are in a great position to do this,” ISD’s Tanya Silverman said. For NGOs and CVE activists working in this field, one of the greatest challenges is using marketing tools for their outreach — social media companies can help by making their tools easier to use and providing training for those who want to use them, Silverman said. But it’s important for everyone in this sphere to recognize some key limitations, particularly in the level of private sector relationships with government, according to Silverman.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to have too much collaboration here — governments can often be mistrusted by the very same people these campaigns are trying to reach,” she said. “While governments need to streamline their own strategic communications and have a wider role to play, their role in collaboration might be to encourage and facilitate partnerships between private sector and civil society to do this work.”
The U.S. government has struggled in this space before. The new Global Engagement Center, which saw its budget boosted from the CSCC’s $6 million to $16 million, has made some adjustments to account for past criticism. While the CSCC focused on direct online engagement like tweeting at terrorists, the GEC’s strategy is a partner-driven approach concentrated on supporting, funding, and training local partners on the ground, rather than having the U.S. be the out-front messenger.
As ISD’s Christopher J. Stewart pointed out, “there have been CVE efforts which have backfired somewhat, and these have often been due to a lack of foresight in terms of the delivery of the campaign.”
Overestimating the credibility of the messenger of the campaign, like a government department, “can undermine the legitimacy of the message the campaign is presenting,” Stewart said.
In a relatively new field like CVE, the debates about best practices — from whether campaigns should be about countering specific messages or instead providing alternative narratives that don’t directly address, and therefore potentially legitimize, terrorist propaganda — spur both arguments and ideas. And questions such as prioritizing the removal of extremist content before producing original content often divides CVE practitioners.
Ibsen of CEP, for instance, suggests that getting social media companies to first remove that content before replacing it with targeted advertising and counter-messaging is the best way to start facing off against this challenge.
Peter Weinberger, the senior researcher on CVE at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, however, pointed out that “blocking and censorship has a kind of finite utility” given the accessibility on the dark web or via dummy sites.
“It’s not only an issue of social media, whether blocking access or providing access to alternative messaging,” he said. “People trying to counter violent extremism have to be willing to engage in some of the ways extremists are, and that means going offline and engaging in the same types of interventions to help, rather than to radicalize.”
Asking social media companies to lead CVE efforts may be a bit short-sighted, but they can play an important role thanks to their financial resources and power to promote certain voices, as well as their ability to provide some data to measure how effective campaigns led by NGOs and community groups can be, Weinberger said.
From using machine learning and algorithms to identify extremist content — Ibsen said CEP is developing a robust hashing technology, for instance, to flag it for removal — to directly appealing to the open source community to develop creative ideas, those in the CVE sphere say they need to focus on innovation, experimentation, and data collection to try to figure out new ways to combat violent extremism from ISIS and other groups online.
“They’re not going to give up their ideological views so easily,” Zaman said. “But, little by little, content challenging that is useful.”