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ICSR Insight – The Power of the Swarm: Where Next for Counter-Messaging?

12/07/2016

In the wake of the June 12 IS-inspired attack in Orlando, FL, many questions have been raised about what is being done to fight IS – not only on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but also on the Internet, where a war of ideas and influence is taking place. This is not a new question. For years, policymakers and researchers have been assessing how best to deal with extremist content on the Web. This is not just a matter of deciding what content to take down – if content should be taken down at all – but also crafting compelling counter-messages and narratives that can stand up to and disrupt slick, and at times convincing, IS propaganda. ICSR has been exploring this issue since its nascence; in addition to publishing several papers and reports on the subject, ICSR has advised the United Nations, the White House, the State Department, and the US Congress on this matter.

Early government efforts to counter extremist narratives have proven to be uninspired and unsuccessful. For instance, in his opening statement at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Countering the Virtual Caliphate, Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce said of the State Department’s counter-messaging efforts, “The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was designed to identify and respond to extremist content online. Yet because its communications were ‘branded’ with the official State Department seal, they fell on deaf ears.”

Other US policymakers know this, and the conversation in Washington surrounding counter-messaging has shifted as a result. There is a realization among experts and those in the halls of power that heavy handed, government centric approaches are ineffective, cumbersome, and costly.

As Rep. Royce indicated, the source of a message can render the message inauthentic and ineffective. The government is not a credible religious voice and the State Department should not be in the business of issuing fatwas. For all its brutality and misrepresentations of life under IS, their propaganda feels authentic to at-risk individuals, who view their messengers as trustworthy and credible on matters of religion. Government counter-messaging efforts, on the other hand, are stuffy, stilted, and risk-averse. Bureaucracies are far more likely to deliver a message that ticks bureaucratic boxes than a message that might be riskier but more impactful.

The State Department has signaled that it is moving towards a more flexible approach. Created through an executive order by President Obama in March, the Global Engagement Center (GEC) is an attempted reboot of counter-messaging policy. In her testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, GEC Chief of Staff Meagan LaGraffe testified, “We have pivoted from direct online engagement to partner-driven messaging and content. While the U.S. government has a good message to tell, we are not always the most credible voice to tell it.” While these efforts have the potential for success, they still appear to be government-centric and questions remain about whether the GEC will be nimble enough to counter new IS messages quickly and overcome inherent government risk-aversion.

However, branding and ‘the messenger’ are just two problems associated with counter-messaging efforts to date. The bigger issue is that counter-narratives need to be deployed at scale. As ICSR Director Peter Neumann testified before Congress:

“Even if we found the perfect message, the perfect messenger, and even if we managed to produce the perfect video, it would still be a drop in the ocean. There still wouldn’t be oomph. This is the internet. People are exposed to thousands of things every day. To get your message through, you need to be loud, you need volume, and you can’t be on your own.”

Experts have described IS recruitment efforts online as a “swarm” and to counter those efforts, governments and communities need their own swarm. Government will never be able to accomplish this on their own and cannot be associated with the final output of such efforts. Civil society, religious leaders, and even volunteers need to be empowered and connected so they can produce content that is credible and moves the dial in the fight against IS online. However, as expressed in the testimony of Seamus Hughes, from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, those doing this counter messaging need to be made immune from entanglements with law enforcement and potential prosecution, currently “…many have expressed concern that engaging with known or suspected terrorists online may unduly place them under law enforcement suspicion”.

Conclusions

For reasons of credibility, risk, and scale, governments cannot and should not be the principal actor in developing or disseminating narratives to counter violent extremism. However, governments do have a role to play as a convener; bringing together voices, ideas, and funding from the private sector, academia, and local communities. These organizations, experts, and community and religious leaders, if properly trained, can produce content at a greater rate and with greater success than bureaucratically-hamstrung State Department initiatives.

Furthermore, US policymakers need to develop options for disrupting violent radicalization that are not law enforcement centric. If family members or friends think an individual is falling victim to IS propaganda, there needs to be a path to help that individual that does not necessarily end with arrest or prosecution. To date, US authorities have been more inclined to groom individuals as part of sting operations rather than direct them to counselling or other sources of help. When the only tool government has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We need to expand the toolbox.

ICSR has written extensively on issues of online radicalization and IS recruitment efforts online. Please see the following ICSR reports for more information:

The Challenge of Online Radicalisation: A Strategy for Action 

#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks 

Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors