Countering extremist narratives online: competing or cooperating?
2 Jun 2016| and

Image courtesy of Flickr user Miika Silfverberg

The current conflict in the Middle East isn’t the first in which online communication tools—social media platforms, private messaging apps and alike—have played a role. But the Islamic State’s ability to engage people online is notably complex in its scope and scale, with a decentralised media machine producing content on a scale that rivals mainstream content providers. While IS won’t be defeated online, taking it on in cyberspace is necessary to blunt the effectiveness of its ability to build support and attract recruits using online tools.

Companies such as Twitter and Google have moved to excise extremist accounts only to see similar accounts quickly resurface to broadcast similar content. That’s why coalition states, and their private sector partners, are working to develop and distribute counter-narratives that reduce the credibility of IS’s online propaganda. Several states, including Australia, and other organisations and individuals have pursued this task in recent years with varying degrees of success.

An early attempt was the US State Department’s @ThinkAgainTurnAway, a Twitter account which launched in December 2013 with the intent of exposing the truth about terrorism by undermining a range of violent extremist messages. However, the account was criticised for engaging in petty disputes with IS sympathisers, rather than distilling counter-narratives with reason and maturity. A group of technology, marketing and data experts has since raised ‘serious questions about whether the US government should be involved in overt messaging at all,’ expressing concerns that there was little evidence suggesting the social media campaign had reduced the number of IS recruits.

In January 2016, the account was folded into the US Global Engagement Centre, which provides news and updates about terrorism and efforts to combat violent extremism. The State Department described the move as a revamp of its counter-violent-extremist communications efforts—the centre was charged with coordinating, integrating and synchronising messages to counter those disseminated by violent extremists. The closure of @ThinkAgainTurnAway indicates that criticism has led State to abandon its more direct counter-messaging tactics in favour of a broader approach.

The UK is taking a similar approach with its @UKAgainstDaesh Twitter account. Like the revamped US efforts, it weaves counter-narratives into other information retweeted from Coalition partners, NGOs and journalists in an attempt to undermine the credibility of IS’s propaganda. The UK approach has likely been informed by reflection on the US model, acknowledging that partnership with credible voices, other governments and third parties would be more effective.

Australia’s work in this field has been notably unsuccessful so far. In 2015, the ADF launched the Twitter account @Fight_DAESH, described by then-Minister for Defence Kevin Andrews as a means to correct false information disseminated by IS and its sympathisers. @Fight_Daesh’s first media engagement was a botched and embarrassing BuzzFeed interview, highlighting the inexperience of its administrators. The account also received criticism for its poor command of Arabic, which the ADF said was the result of the transfer of language across IT programs. Not only does poor translation fail to communicate effectively, it also makes it difficult to build trust with target audiences. Given the ADF’s long operational experience in the Middle East, and its efforts to increase diversity, it should have the capability within itself to bring the linguistic and cultural expertise necessary to do so successfully.

Some grassroots initiatives have fared better. One example is Mohamed Ahmed, a Somali-American otherwise known as Average Mohamed, who creates short videos to clarify points of contention in Islam and dispel myths perpetuated by extremists to their own ends. The videos are pitched at eight to fourteen year-olds and they use simple, visually appealing cartoons and peer-to-peer messaging to illustrate counter-narratives with calming language. Ahmed states the efficacy of his project is due to the fact that the videos talk to Muslims, rather than talk at Muslims. While it’s still too early to measure how Ahmed’s efficacy, a centre at the University of Southern California is partnering with Ahmed to better understand the terrorist threat and research successful aspects of grassroots initiatives which could inform best practises.

Another example is Abdullah X, a YouTube channel created by an anonymous former extremist. His cartoons provide Abdullah’s ‘robust narrative in order to give viewers pause to reflect’ on why they’re considering violent extremism. The cartoons also reinforce the harsh realities of life under IS in Syria, which recruiters may gloss over when recruiting individuals to the Caliphate. Both initiatives use animation, popular culture references, authentic Muslim voices and Arabic language emphasising Islam as a religion of peace to communicate their messages.

Engaging people who are often already distrustful of western governments through institutional social media accounts with no personally identifiable owner is a tall order. Grassroots initiatives can quickly build credibility with communities as they come from within them. More authentic, credible and relevant messages rooted within the Muslim community appear to be more effective; and governments should engage and support them, rather than compete for influence and eyeballs. That requires a significant rethink of how organisations like the ADF engage in the digital fight against violent extremism, both alone and with Coalition partners. But such thoughtful coordination is likely to make a more significant impact than we’ve seen from recent and current government-led campaigns.