US Pummels ISIS in Online Combat

The U.S. government’s campaign to counter the Islamic State’s social media presence is bearing fruit, the Associated Press reported Saturday. More anti-ISIS content than pro-ISIS content is appearing on the Net by a ratio of six to one.

Twitter traffic for accounts affiliated with the Islamic State is down by 45 percent compared to two years ago, according to the report, and the average number of followers for an ISIS account has plunged to 300 from 1,500 in 2014.

Social media has been a major vehicle for the Islamic State’s efforts to recruit new blood and disseminate its doctrine, so blunting its effectiveness is one way to starve the group of resources to fight its war against the West and to foment terrorist attacks around the world.

New Tack Taken

Early U.S. efforts to counter the Islamic State’s social media efforts were ineffective, noted Laith Alkhouri, director of Middle East and North Africa research at Flashpoint.

Its Think Again Turn Away program attempted to steer recruits away by showing videos of ISIS performing atrocious acts in its territories. However, feeding potential recruits images of beheadings and mass shootings did not have the desired effect.

“ISIS has never tried to hide what it is,” Alkhouri told TechNewsWorld. “It isn’t shy about admitting that it beheads people, that it kills people, so that campaign was pretty much ineffective.”

A campaign centered on a series of defectors replaced the Turn Away campaign.

“That campaign was better, but there was no measure of efficiency we could rely on to say it deterred people from joining ISIS,” Alkhouri said.

The State Department is attempting to address those measurement issues in the latest version of the program, which is run by the Global Engagement Center.

Better Messengers

“The Obama administration launched the Center as part of a revamp of our counterterrorism messaging strategy,” said Dean Lieberman, the Center’s communications director.

“We are taking a new approach in order to be more effective, which is centered around partner-driven messaging,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Instead of focusing on direct messaging to potential ISIL sympathizers ourselves,” he continued, “we are developing, supporting and empowering a global network of partners — from NGOs to governments to individuals — who can serve as more credible messengers to our target audience.”

The center is trying not only to leverage the credibility of others to improve acceptance of its messages, but also to more effectively measure that acceptance.

“The center is becoming an analytics-based organization, and we’ve significantly scaled up our data analytics capabilities,” Lieberman said. “This means we’re using world class data analytics technology to better understand recruitment dynamics online and to better guide our messaging efforts.”

Decline in Propoganda

Through its use of analytics, the center is seeing two encouraging trends, Lieberman noted. First, the volume of pro-ISIL propaganda has declined. Second, anti-ISIL audiences have become increasingly vocal on social media.

There are a number of factors contributing to that decline, he said. They include the success of the center’s messaging efforts and coordinated, global campaigns; ISIL’s recent battlefield losses; and the private sector’s suspension of pro-ISIL social media accounts.

Hactivist groups have contributed to the Islamic State’s weakening online presence, said Erik Knight, CEO of SimpleWan.

“What the U.S. government is doing is helping, but you also have groups like Anonymous actively going after Twitter accounts controlled by these groups,” he noted. “It’s becoming a war with diminishing returns for ISIS. It’s taking a lot more work for ISIS to get messages out.”

Twitter Steps Up to Plate

However, more than analytics and partnerships will be needed if the U.S. to further disrupt the Islamic State’s social media efforts.

“I believe that the challenge going forward will be how well they can automate this process rather than waiting for reports of offensive material to come in by hand,” said Dan Lohrmann, CSO of Security Mentor.

“New tools are definitely coming in this area,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Although the United States has improved its messaging, the real damage to the Islamic State’s social media presence is not being done by the government, but by social media companies like Twitter and Facebook, Flashpoint’s Alkhouri maintained.

“Twitter suffered the most from ISIS and its supporters. At one time, ISIS supporters were putting out from 90,000 to 150,000 tweets a day,” he said.

“It took Twitter quite some time before they could develop a mechanism to not only ban accounts distributing violent material but also those condoning killings and bombings,” Alkhouri explained.

However, even if the Islamic State’s presence on Twitter and Facebook is curtailed, there are other social media forums it can tap into.

“The digital toolbox at the fingertips of ISIS supporters is extremely huge,” Alkhouri said. “While they are suffering using Twitter and Facebook, they are really expanding their use of social media to many other platforms, including those the United States has no jurisdiction over.”

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