Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Terrorism On and Off Line

ISIS is a lean, mean, media recruitment machine. Their ranks are filled with young, tech-savvy operatives, able to embrace the cutting edge digital and social media to access their constituency and their potential-constituency in 20 languages, slick, well-produced content that has obviously resonated fairly well with too many.
Back on November 30th (The Recruitment Priority at ISIS), I wrote: “With a heavy participation of ‘foreign fighters’ from all over the world, including lots of people with prior experience in mainstream media, ISIS considers its media division to be an essential part of their global conquest agenda. Cameramen, field producers, reporters and their coordinating bosses are accorded senior military ranks that mark their power and prestige within the overall hierarchy.
“Senior media operatives are treated as ‘emirs’ of equal rank to their military counterparts. They are directly involved in decisions on strategy and territory. They preside over hundreds of videographers, producers and editors who form a privileged, professional class with status, salaries and living arrangements that are the envy of ordinary fighters.
“‘It is a whole army of media personnel,’ said Abu Abdullah al Maghribi, a… defector who served in the Islamic State’s security ranks but had extensive involvement with its propaganda teams… ‘The media people are more important than the soldiers,’ he said. ‘Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.’” Washington Post, November 20th.”
On February 16th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with a gathering of Hollywood studio and media executives on how to use our creative skills to create a new message, content focused on countering the ISIS (also “Daesh” - an acronym for the Arabic phrase “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham”): “The meeting was held at Universal Studios, and lasted about 90 minutes… One attendee who was there said that the executives also exchanged ideas and observations about studio worldwide marketing of movies and TV shows, a way of showing how narrative storytelling can cross cultures. The attendee described part of the gathering as a ‘brainstorming session,’ including how to involve storytellers in regions afflicted or threatened by ISIS, as a way to counter the narratives promulgated by the terrorist organization. ‘Let’s figure out how to involve people who are there,’ the attendee said.”, February 16th.
Meanwhile, the owners of major social media sites have drilled down on take-down efforts to mute ISIS’ use of their platforms to spread their malevolent messages. Some efforts have amounted to little more than a whack-a-mole effort, where sophisticated and often automated ISIS programs restore or move ISIS messages to a new place in cyber space almost as quickly as they are removed. But there are clearly some encouraging signs that some of these terrorism counter-measures in cyber space just might be beginning to make a difference. Indeed, ISIS just might be losing its global media voice.
For example, “Twitter recently announced that since mid-2015 it has suspended 125,000 accounts that were threatening or promoting terrorist acts, with many of those suspended accounts primarily related to the militant group ISIS… 
“Researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report showing that Islamic State's English-language reach on Twitter has leveled off dramatically since the start of the crackdown. In the report titled ‘The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter’ … the researchers studied a five-month period from June 2015 to October 2015 in which they discovered that Twitter’s increased suspensions of ISIS-related accounts held the size and reach of the overall ISIS Twitter propaganda network flat, while the reach of specific ISIS supporters had been devastated.
“Among flatlining reach on Twitter among ISIS supporters, the report also found that:
·         The number of readily discoverable English-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter is relatively small, usually fewer than 1,000 accounts.
·         ISIS English-language social networks are extremely insular, meaning users mostly follow and interact with each other.
·         The average number of Twitter followers any given ISIS supporter could expect was 300 to 400. Average follower counts were periodically reduced by aggressive waves of suspensions.
·         Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.
·         Network and individual declines persisted even when suspension pressure eased, suggesting that suspensions diminish activity in ways that extend beyond the simple removal of accounts.
·         Average tweets per day (over the lifetime of an account) declined during the period monitored, with a peak of approximately 14.5 tweets per day in June, and a low of 5.5 tweets per day at the end of the study period.
“The researchers’ findings will be welcome news to White House and security agency officials, who in January met with tech executives to discuss combating terrorism online. The government has become increasingly worried over how adept ISIS is at using social media to recruit members online, while becoming frustrated with tech companies, who they say could do more to combat terrorist propaganda.”, February 19th.
It’s a slow and frustrating battle, both military and in the “hearts and minds” of the vulnerable. American expeditions in the Middle East have made many enemies. Our military efforts and the words of some of our major political figures have provided vivid images and messages that ISIS has used to their advantage. But there is a path to degrading ISIS’ messages and pushing them back. Remembering that most of ISIS victims are themselves Muslim, those who ultimately will pull down this ugly terrorist force, we can and must begin being at least a smart as ISIS propagandists are in reversing their gains.
I’m Peter Dekom, and applying intelligence in lieu of knee-jerk sloganeering and ineffective countermeasures clearly form a path that needs to be prioritized.

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