Rebooting the U.S.’ New Counter Messaging Efforts Against ISIS


A late 2015 news article reported that the U.S. Department of State was considering reducing its online campaigns to target the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The findings of an outside panel of experts cast significant doubt that U.S. efforts have been effective against a terrorist group whose online activities have been touted as both “horrifying” and “effective”.  Since 2011, it is estimated that ISIS has recruited approximately 20,000 fighters, demonstrating the potency of the Internet when communicating to a global constituency.

Previous U.S. attempts to provide a viable alternative to ISIS propaganda have been largely unsuccessful.  In December 2015 the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on a bill (“Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act”) that would require the Obama Administration to report to Congress on its strategy for mitigating terrorist use of social media.  This demonstrated concern at the highest levels that the Executive Office did not have a cohesive plan in place to combat ISIS propaganda machine, despite a U.S. official’s statements that messaging operations were “trending upward.”

However, the sheer volume produced by ISIS (between 90,000-200,000 “tweets” per day, according to one researcher, not including other social media outlets) and the different target audiences its online presence impacts makes providing a counter narrative to each message a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor.  Complicating matters is that even though ISIS has a professional centralized propaganda machine, anyone can promote the ISIS message.  For example, in November 2015, a Minnesota man was arrested in Somalia for encouraging jihad by spreading militant Islamic rhetoric online.  The individual had at least 33 Twitter accounts, using social media to recruit militants, some from his home state.

Many believe that the Department of State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC) suffered from organizational problems and waning morale due to limited or muddled guidance.  While valid concerns, a more immediate problem was not the lack of guidance or the inability to retain a director for an extended period of time, but the U.S.’ inability to craft the right themes that would resonate with their intended target audience.  Perhaps, more importantly, the U.S. was not focusing on the right topics.

According to the CSCC website, “the Digital Outreach Team in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali to counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation about the United States across a wide variety of interactive digital environments.”  This approach has been called “straight forward” fact-based messaging designed to counter specific information provided about the U.S. by ISIS and ISIS sympathizers.  The review panel consisted largely of individuals with experience in marketing and branding and looked at both ISIS and the U.S. as “brands.” They did not speak Arabic, or knowledgeable about terrorist groups, according to the news article, calling into question the metrics and criteria by which messages were measured.  As of this writing, the Department of State decided not to make the report available to the public.

As of January 2016, the U.S. has initiated a new strategy looking to capitalize on lessons learned and not to repeat past mistakes.  A new Global Engagement Center was established in order to engage more with third parties and people on a human level, tailoring messages to increase their receptivity to specific audiences. According to the statement on its webpage, the Center more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups.”  In addition, the Center will provide funding to non-governmental offices and organizations dedicated to countering extremist messaging.  These outlets will be in the specific areas where the U.S. wants to directly counter ISIS propaganda.

In addition to this new effort, social media outlets are looking to increase their oversight of their channels to reduce extremist sites and feeds.  Recently, Twitter shut down approximately 125,000 ISIS-related accounts over the past seven months as well as adding additional personnel to monitor terrorist activity on the social network.  Twitter is also collaborating with law enforcement to mitigate online recruiting efforts.   Twitter’s increased diligence comes on the heels of a White House meeting with Silicon Valley companies that discussed ways to mute the ISIS propaganda machine.

Collectively, these are encouraging developments for the U.S. demonstrating that it has taken into consideration critiques of prior messaging efforts.  The new Center’s approach is line with some of the key takeaways from the review panel’s findings, particularly with regards to disseminating messages locally rather than from Washington, D.C. However, what would further bolster their credibility is to have them spearheaded by the defectors themselves letting them lead the messaging campaigns would be more relevant and meaningful to not only ISIS members doubting the group’s direction, but potential recruits as well.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence Victims published a report “Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors” that featured the unique insights and perspectives of at least 58 individuals of different nationalities on why they left the group.  ISIS, while an organization, is an ideology that recruits across the globe.  There is no one message that the United States can craft that takes into account the different cultural backgrounds and sensitivities that make up ISIS’ ranks.

Messaging is effective when it comes from shared experience.  The time is ripe to let the very people that one time swore allegiance to the terrorist organization take the reigns in exposing ISIS for what it is in a way that only a first person perspective can.