State Department Wants To Troll Terrorists Online

from the because-that'll-make-them-change-their-minds dept

It’s no secret that various extremists and terrorists groups use the internet just like everyone else. And, of course, there are places where they communicate. Some politicians, like Joe Lieberman, think that the way you should respond to this is by having companies censor any account that appears to be connected to terrorist organizations that he doesn’t like. That this might cause such marginalized groups to feel even more persecuted and angry never seems to cross his mind.

Of course, that’s not the only approach. Spencer Ackerman, over at Wired’s Danger Room blog, has a fascinating story about a guy at the State Department (with almost no budget) who is trying to ramp up a plan, called Viral Peace, which is basically all about using social media to troll terrorists and extremists online in the hope of convincing some to give up.

The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.

While I certainly appreciate this idea more than the outright censorship plan that Lieberman seems to like, I do wonder if the program might backfire by doing the exact opposite of what they’re trying to do. Trolling has its place and can rile people up, but I’m not sure it’s ever effective in getting anyone to change their position. In fact, it can often make people dig their heels in even deeper…

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “State Department Wants To Troll Terrorists Online”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, think of it as shinning light on the worst of the worst, they are already radicals so, nothing there changes.

Radicals mostly are lovers of order, they want a predictable life, they fantasize about a perfect world, they don’t know how to coupe with chaos and unpredictability.

People are hard to change once they learn something, once you understand a certain way even if there are better options you probably won’t accept them or make use of them because you don’t understand how it works.

You can see that kind of behavior everywhere isn’t just the terrorists who act like that, you can see it in the justice department, in any government around the world and even in ourselves from time to time.

Terrorists lack the social means to deal with change.
Most of them will die that way and they will teach others how to be dumb too, unless those people are challenged, when you troll a troll you do it not for the troll, you do it to show others that even the troll can be made a fool and so it loses appeal.

That is my story and I will stick with it LoL

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If they can avoid flaming (if we are calling this trolling) then it might be a good idea. You are unlikely to change the mind of the hard liners or the people using the rhetoric as a means to an ends what it will do is remove the monopoly of the ideas in the space.

This may not seem like much but to me it seems like isolation is a huge step in the radicalization of other wise moderate people, youths especially. If you control the space then you control the debate and once you are doing that it becomes much easier to control some ones views.

Compelling competing ideas are key to undermining the kind of ideas that often lead to terrorism.

Now while I don’t think this will actually do that all that much having people who are willing to go into that space disrupt the control of ideas in it… not sure it’s awful either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Some of the terrorists might get riled up. That is actually no change in their present status — they are already riled up, they would not be terrorists otherwise. However, some of them might start to see through what they have been told by the mad mullahs. The answer to unacceptable speech is more speech pointing out what is wrong with the unacceptable speech. This is — finally — a very intelligent move by the State Department.

Wrong ideas can only be fought with correct ideas, they cannot be fought with censorship. No censorship regime has ever prevented determined people from getting their ideas across to others. Anyone being censored always finds another way. That is why censorship never works.

The State Department deserves kudos for getting it nearly right. They could improve their strategy still more by eliminating the “trolling” element. The most effective way to win your arguments is to treat your opponents with respect. They have wrong ideas, that is not really their fault. Your task is to help them to get correct ideas and to see the faults in the doctrine they formerly believed.

If you want to be respected and listened to, then you also must respect and listen. You must show by word and deed that you respect and listen. It is just like arguing with religious sects that visit your house. Be nice to them personally, but do not hold back in your condemnation of their ideas. Abuse does not work. Intellectual engagement is what works. It is a very good thing that the US government is finally starting to learn this lesson.

Those Clintons, they are smart.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I don’t think he means trolling in the common parlance we all use it in.
He is trolling them by trying to get them to engage in a discussion, but not so he can pull a haha moment.

There was a video I watched once, a man went along asking people if being gay was a choice – to those who answered yes he asked them well when did you decide to be straight?

Now this smacks of trolling, but if you watch the video you can see the wheels turning for some people. You can’t reach everyone, but if you can take away one of the supports to a belief you can get people to see it another way. There is no Helen Keller “wa-wa” moment, but if you can get people to question what they are being told by having them look at it through the lens of the religion that is being subverted to say killing is right you might reach some minds.

Someone working for Viral Peace could simply pose the question of what do you get if you die in the Jihad. Get the standard response about the 72 virgins, and then ask them where does it say that in the Quran? It does not talk about that in the Quran, but in some other texts associated with but not part of the main tenets of Islam.
Your not going to have a quick fix for the issue, but rather than just propaganda from the US this project seems like it would work much better.
Letting people who understand and are a part of the culture speak rather than trying to lecture. Trying to keep the heavy hand of the US out of it would be of benefit as we have just an “amazing” track record around the globe for putting dictators into place because we like them and ignoring all of the evil they do when we put them there.

Its better than most of the other ideas we have seen.

Aerilus says:

Re: Re:

i tend to agree it seems like radicalism and fundamentalism need isolation and brain washing to function and that isolation is coveted by these persuasions if outside information can be introduced then i feel like some of the power that is exerted over people in that sphere will be diminished. if a muslim is hearing only the selected parts of the koran that are twisted to support an agenda i feel like it would help to have someone with the knowledge there to point out other parts of the koran that clearly contradict that.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you want to see this in action, look at those that have escaped Westboro.
They are the people who knew it was wrong, and were exposed to other ideas that helped them see it was wrong. You look at the rest of the family and you see them deep seated in their hate.

Sometimes all it takes is posing a question that causes a thought. And that ripple goes out and gets someone to think and it might change some minds. They might not suddenly love everyone but they might think there is hope of change beyond just becoming a martyr.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:


Those that are ‘brainwashed’ into believing without question on the virgins are no different from the Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, [insert long list of religions] that take their Churches teachings as the universal truth and refuse to accept those that are different.

What we see now in the Islam is what happened to the Church with the Crusades, Inquisition. The Church eventually evolved and recognized its errors. Sure they have a long way to evolve into accepting differences and stop trying to impose their views on every1 in form of laws.

In the end the keyword is tolerance. It’s a luxury good nowadays.

TDR says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

And what about you, Ninja? What would it take for you to question your beliefs? Are you aware that something can feel like it should be right, but in fact be totally wrong? You don’t get someone to believe a lie by telling it outright, you mix it with just enough truth to be palatable and more difficult to distinguish from the actual truth. And misrepresent and distort the actual truth as much as possible. I’m not talking about you, by the way, just explaining that what you think you know may not be as solid as you think. Just something to think about. As well as the fact that your automatic assumption that a faith can’t possibly be true is as fallacious as the Church’s early methods were. You practice the exact same behavior you accuse others of, denying the possibility of truth of any belief but your own. Just keep that in mind.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I did not see Ninja denying a faith as true or even getting deeply into real faith, merely a comment about a common theme that happens over and over when people become part of a group.

Where leaders get their followers to cast anyone not like them as “the others”.
“The Others” are the reason your life is bad.
“The Others” are the reason you lost your job.
“The Others” are the reason your taxes are so high.
“The Others” are the reason you won’t get salvation… etc etc.
Jesus is Love, now get out there and hate people not like you.
Sounds silly but this happens time and time again.
I have had to deal with people “trained” by their faith to hate me, Gays are evil, Gays hurt children, Gays hurt animals… etc. Yet in my life I count among friends and family people who took the time to get to know me and see that the “lessons” they were taught were wrong. Because it is easier to hate on “The Gays” than to hate on someone you have known for a long time and aren’t what the leaders told you they are.

I am unaware of any of the “major” religions with tenets of faith that are hate everyone who is different from you, but those who rise to power in them always seem to direct the followers to hate a group. Its not just religion where this happens you can find it in politics, and sometimes fused together.

Wally (profile) says:

Very Dangerous

Worst case scenario, being trolled would give the terrorists an incentive to retaliate. The difference between the Forum Troll and a terrorist is that the terrorist has access to explosives.

In other words this is a very dangerous idea.

Annoyingly enough, The US State Department wants an extreme risk and danger, Leiberman wants censorship. Neither of which anyone would really want or should ever have.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Levy the first salvo, State Department!

I’ll lend you my Bob! And my Darryl! And my Weird Harold! And my Average Joe.

And ye all shall be led, by he who has the most utmost powers of trolling, but hath thus far refrained from the black art in favor of the light of logic and truth. But, yay, he shall come, true in name and worst of them all, black as the ace of spades and hilted in heady armor.

Beware their leader, ye silly extremey Islamy types: The Dark Helmet cometh….

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

Nothing new

I’ve been doing exactly this to right-wing tools on the Internet since about 2004.

The trick is to not be so obnoxious that you get summarily banned right off the bat. Of course, the really doctrinaire sites like RedState or FreeRepublic will automatically ban you just for not being sufficiently in agreement with absolutely everything they say, but many right-wing sites like National Review or Fox Nation are not so quick to pull the banishment trigger.

However, I’m betting that all things considered, the terrorists are probably easier to engage than the right wing. They are probably also more likely to have a sense of humor.

abc gum says:

Re: Nothing new

“the terrorists are probably easier to engage than the right wing.”

I’m sure you are aware, but I’ll state it anyway – the term “terrorist” is not exclusive to any particular religion or political persuasion. There are terrorists of varying degrees within almost every group, yes – including christian religions.

Anonymous Coward of Esteemed Trolling (profile) says:


Ah… you see trolls as only “dicks being rude”.
Yes there are dicks out there that troll with no point, posting stoopid…

But there is some awesome humor, thought provoking and downright exposure to everyone, of the targets hypocrisy and retardation levels. (if done right)
There is also pissing them off… but the name of the game is playing them. Then doing what you want via their vulnerabilities.

I would definitely love, trolling terrorists as a job
Pull their pants down in front of everyone, for total humiliation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Some of the idea created by US state goverments completly blow my mind away…

I mean how can this be a productive way to counter terrorism. As said by a few people, the idea of trolling in our sense MAY be different to what the govenor is talking about. I guess he means to try and persude and change ideas, by making them double think. OK.

Or, there is an easier option. If you have access to speak to known terrorists, and are actively speaking to them. Why not go and deal with the problem full on, find them, and sort it. Instead of riling them on an internet forum.

Anonymous Coward of Esteemed Trolling (profile) says:

Re: Re:

embarrass, discredit, humiliate and generally make them look like fools.
People need support, wannabe terrorists will soon turn away and laugh at the fools.

Think, the war of dis-info about Anonymous…. but now with a target who will fall for it.
Trolls Trolling Trolls, is the dis-info war on Anonymous, #NotWinnable , facepalm.jpg
Jihadists and other religious fucknunts on the other hand, like Scientology can be trolled to maximum butthurt status.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How’s that full-on War on Terror going for you? I see Iraq and Afghanistan are havens of peace and My Little Ponies.

Funnily enough, most terrorists aren’t easily accessible except via the net, or identifiable in any meaningful way. If the right sort of trolling makes a few think, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper in dollars and more importantly lives than a marine division or shooting down unarmed airliners.

DataShade (profile) says:

I’ve only seen like two people here who seemed to have read the article.

The “trolls” aren’t targeting hard-core terrorists, but, rather, the potential recruits – the people who are in need of strong role models who end up gravitating to the violent, dangerous blowhards because they act like they have all the answers.

No teenager is going to idolize Barry Bonds now that he’s carrying that asterisk around; nor has Paul Ruebens gotten much work in the last decade.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well directly challenging the “alpha” personality will get you kicked out of the pool. Unless you can make sure to get them to break character and have a meltdown they are not worth engaging directly. Slipping in as another “lost soul” looking for someone to show them the way and posing questions that are difficult to answer and causing doubt around the “alphas” command of the situation is a much better tactic.
Finding flaws in the narrative, and exploiting them.

Much havoc can be caused, and that shakes the idea that these are the guys with the right answers.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...