State Dept. Now Trolling Twitter Terrorists

from the flame-war! dept

The US State Department’s social media arms have been much busier over the past few months trolling terrorist sympathizers and radicalization groups online via Twitter and Facebook. “Trolling” probably isn’t the most precise term for the injection of countering views into previously uninterrupted feeds, but it does sort of sum up the State Dept’s end game, which is less set on converting would-be terrorists than simply preventing these accounts from running uninterrupted and unchallenged feeds.

Back in December of last year, Alberto Fernandez, who heads the State Dept.’s “Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications,” put it his way.

Gauging the effort’s effectiveness will be challenging, but even interrupting Al Qaeda’s unimpeded English-language efforts would amount to a modest success, officials said.

“They were setting the narrative and had a free shot at the audience for radicalizing people,” Mr. Fernandez said in an interview. “Nobody was calling them” on it.

The State Dept. uses analysts familiar with the many terrorist factions currently operating around the world, including some fluent in Arabic, Urdu, Somali and Punjabi, to provide countering arguments to assertions made by Twitter accounts and Facebook pages loosely tied to terrorist organizations. The recent activities of State Dept.-sponsored Twitter accounts like Think Again Turn Away (whose avatar is the State Dept. insignia) have drawn some press, but the genesis of these efforts dates back much further than that.

This kind of thing isn’t unusual for the State Department. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was established in 2010 to coordinate messaging to target violent extremism on the internet, especially that of Al Qaeda and affiliates. CSCC (an interagency center that is housed at State) initially focused on non-English online forums where the State Department saw jihadists attempting to recruit and raise money (message boards, comments on Al Jazeera Talk, etc.) Late last year, CSCC made a move into English-language websites, with the small team of analysts and microbloggers expanding their fight on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere, under the banner of the US State Department.

Back in 2012, Techdirt covered another State Dept. effort called “Viral Peace,” which was aiming to “troll” extremists using big social media sites as well as smaller forums, hoping to neutralize the threat by undermining it. The Wired story covered was light on details on exactly what form this “trolling” would take, as the near-zero-budget program was still in development, with even the program leaders unsure of what the best methods would be. As Mike pointed out then, trolling extremists carried the potential for horrendous backlash, with clumsy efforts just as likely to craft more enemies of America than dissuade potential recruits.

What the State Dept. is doing now leaves no doubt that this is a government-controlled operation. No effort is being made to hide the department’s involvement, which makes the counterpoints almost too easily dismissed and/or attacked to be considered truly effective. (A go-to counterargument to the State Dept.’s accusations of terrorist-related killings of women and children has been to point to the US’s drone program, something that has killed a number of women and children as well.)

While there’s no doubt the NSA and other agencies are operating undercover accounts aimed at tracking terrorist threats and subverting radicalization, the State Department’s wholly above-board intercessions are less likely to provoke backlash. Those who want to believe it’s nothing but a propaganda arm are free to discount anything issued from these accounts. Those who might be swayed by seeing a differing viewpoint will be less likely to feel they been somehow tricked, as they might be if an account is later revealed to be controlled by a government employee.

This is still a very difficult area to navigate without making the situation worse, but in a very short time, the State Dept.’s counterterrorism Twitter account has become comfortable enough in its engagement with extremists to deploy the sort of snark that clearly reveals a human being runs the account — albeit one wearing its affiliation on its sleeve.

Success will still be measured by reactions rather than anything truly quantifiable, like attacks prevented or would-be terrorists dissuaded.

“If you’re talking about would-be extremists reading a tweet and turning away from violence as a result, it’s hard to tell how much that is happening,” Will McCants [former counterterrorism advisor to the State Dept.] says. “So if you measure success that way, it’s hard to know. But you can demonstrate that this kind of effort has gotten into the heads of senior leadership. With al-Shabaab, for instance, leaders issued a directive saying not to interact with the State Department accounts because they spread lies about the mujahideen. Things used to be the other way, with [US officials] talking about how jihadis were so good at messaging against the US. It’s nice that we’re starting to have this turnaround.”

The State Department hasn’t always had success in its social media forays, but there’s not much to criticize about this so-called “trolling” effort. This effort seems to be exercising a great deal of restraint and the transparency of these accounts will hopefully prevent a few of the more noxious side effects — like pushing even more would-be terrorists off the fence.

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Comments on “State Dept. Now Trolling Twitter Terrorists”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Sending funds to a terrorist outfit is really dumb, especially from this country which is their target. The last thing I want to read about is my neighbor’s kid got blown up in a church or some group got injured in a mall somewhere.

There is a whole bunch of things I fault my country for, given the present day leadership and where it’s went. I see that as internal changes that need made through the voting process or if it can’t be done then through the grassroots method of dealing with it.

I do not welcome these representatives of what is supposed to be the religion of peace getting involved. They are just as hypocritical as my own government. What I don’t expect is my own government setting up roadside bombs to get their way.

If it does, it is no better than those it is fighting.

Alt0 says:

It is also “possible” (maybe not as much as it would scare me) knowing the State Department was reading your tweets and answering could cause some to close at least that channel of communication.
If not dissuade them maybe just scare them off.
I know if I had a twitter conversation going with an even quasi-terrorist in twitter and the state department chimed in, I would immediately stop following said quasi-terrorist.

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