In Response to Continued Resonance of Awlaki Videos, US Relaunched Social Media Propaganda Campaign

As far as we know, the perpetrators of the November attack on Paris were radicalized by each other, in specific neighborhoods in Europe.

According to the complaint filed against his Enrique Marquez, the friend who got him guns, Syed Rizwan Farook, adopted radical beliefs after consuming the lectures, videos, and magazine of Anwar al-Awlaki. In fact, Farook and Marquez moved towards planning an attack in 2011, in the immediate wake of the drone killing of Awlaki and his son. As to Tashfeen Malik, Farook’s wife, while she did some searches on ISIS just before Farook started an attack on his workplace, public reporting suggests that like the French terrorists, she adopted extreme beliefs through relationships formed in brick and mortar life.

Nevertheless, in response to the anxiety produced by these attacks, the Obama Administration is rolling out yet another propaganda campaign against ISIS. As part of it, it shifts the approach to funding NGOs to do the propaganda work, something I argued any such efforts should be doing in a piece for Vice this week. Though as I noted, any such effort needs to stop countering ISIS propaganda and offering a positive vision that will be meaningful to those with grievances. That was one of the things included in a briefing to Silicon Valley today.

There is also a need for more credible positive messaging and content that provides alternatives to young people concerned about many of the grievances ISIL highlights

The other part of the campaign is a bit sillier. The Administration asked for tech companies to do things like measuring resonance of ISIL messages.

Some have suggested that a measurement of level of radicalization could provide insights to measure levels of radicalization to violence. While it is unclear whether radicalization is measureable or could be measured, such a measurement would be extremely useful to help shape and target counter-messaging and efforts focused on countering violent extremism. This type of approach requires consideration of First Amendment protections and privacy and civil liberties concerns, additional front-end research on specific drivers of radicalization and themes among violent extremist populations, careful design of intervention tools, dedicated technical expertise, and the ability to iteratively improve the tools based on experience in deploying them. Industry certainly has a lot of expertise in measuring resonance in order to see how effective and broad a messaging campaign reaches an audience. A partnership to determine if resonance can be measured for both ISIL and counter-ISIL content in order to guide and improve and more effectively counter the ISIL narrative could be beneficial.

This seems to be a problematic approach both because this should be the intelligence community’s job and because they’re supposed to be pretending this isn’t about focusing on Muslims. Plus, as I noted, the recent big attacks weren’t primarily about social media. More importantly, Jim Comey has testified that the social media companies already are helpful.

Comey, apparently, only went along to demand encryption — and it showed up in the briefing document shared at the meeting.

In addition to using technology to recruit and radicalize, terrorists are using technology to mobilize supporters to attack and to plan, move money for, coordinate, and execute attacks. The roles played by terrorist leaders and attack plotters in this activity vary, ranging from providing general direction to small groups to undertake attacks of their own design wherever they are located to offering repeated and specific guidance on how to execute attacks. To avoid law enforcement and the intelligence community detecting their activities, terrorists are using encrypted forms of communications at various stages of attack plotting and execution. We expect terrorists will continue to use technology to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, including using encrypted communications where law enforcement cannot obtain the content of the communication even with court authorization. We would be happy to provide classified briefings in which we could share additional information.

While Apple was at this meeting, some of the other key players the government would have to address about encryption were not, making this appeal rather silly.

And note the seduction here: the government wants to tell the tech companies how extremists (they really mean only ISIS) are using encryption, but they’re only willing to do so in a classified setting. That would make it harder to counter the bogus claims the government has repeatedly been caught making.

Ultimately, the Administration seems to have no awareness of another of the key problems. They recognize that ISIS’ propaganda is splashy. But they accord no responsibility for mainstream media for magnifying it.

[T]here is a shortage of compelling credible alternative content; and this content is often not as effectively produced or distributed as pro-ISIL content and lacks the sensational quality that can capture the media’s attention.

If the government is going to ask the private sector to do their part, why aren’t they on a plane demanding that CNN stop fear-mongering all the time, both magnifying the effect of ISIS’ propaganda and increasing the polarization between Muslims and right wingers? If CNN can’t be asked to adjust its business model to stop empowering terrorists, why is Silicon Valley being asked to, when the latter are more central to baselines security?


Update: Here’s a list of participants.

Denis McDonough,White House Chief of Staff,

Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security & Counter Terrorism

Todd Park, White House Advisor for Technology

Megan Smith, White House Chief Technology Officer

Loretta Lynch, Attorney General

James Clapper, Director, National Intelligence

James Comey, Director, FBI

Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary, Department of State

Mike Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency

Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security

10 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    A really large step toward “offering a positive vision” would be to put muzzles on Donald Trump and the Twelve Stragglers. We can’t do that, of course, but at least the volume will be turned down a little bit after November.

  2. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Why doesn’t the government do something about CNN’s fear-mongering? I hope you’re kidding, EW. Fear fuels this country. It’s what allows the government to overreach for largely useless backdoors to encryption and everything else it gets. I’m sure they’re fine with everything CNN does.

  3. orionATL says:

    advertising campaigns with a moral usually stick out like a sore thumb.

    advertising campaigns with a government-induced moral message are usually even klunkier.

    the advertising campaigns that work for young adults seem to be about desire to emulate, have a similar experience, or possess the same thing.

    there’s no harm trying, but in the abscence of economic support (education, jobs) and social support (functioning families, communities, cities, this social media advertising campaign(s) is going to have a tough row to hoe.

    maybe comments by admired elders and age mates might give young people enough of another way of thinking to be an antidote to “the glory of youthful adventure and sacrifice”, i. e., the motive we have relied on to recruit our young soldiers for hundreds of years.

  4. Les says:

    Hard to take any of these seriously when the government has said previously that it won’t block r shut down any ISIS web sites, many of which seem to based on IP addresses of allied foreign governments.

  5. haarmeyer says:

    As far as the people in Paris go, when I hear about their “radicalization” all I usually think about is that song, Mama Tried by Merle Haggard.
    And I turned 21 in prison,
    Doing life without parole.
    No one could steer me right,
    But Mama tried, Mama tried,
    Mama tried to raise me better,
    But her pleading I denied.
    And that leaves only me to blame
    Cause Mama tried.

    People go bad sometimes, instead of wasting our time figuring out how that happens, worry about how when it happens it won’t leave benefit a bunch of jihadi lunatics trying to start a caliphate, and leave 129 dead.

    • lefty665 says:

      Verse before the chorus seems to fit too:
      One and only rebel child
      From a family meek and mild
      My mama seemed to know what lay in store
      Despite all my Sunday learning
      Towards the bad I kept on turning
      Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore

  6. Don Bacon says:

    We doing all the right things but we’re not explaining them properly, needs to be changed to we’re doing a lot of things wrong, we will change, and we need to explain why we’re now doing the right things. But of course that won’t happen. They’d rather sell style over substance.

  7. dutch says:

    People are “radicalized” by the awful things we do to them. Better propaganda won’t change the fact that they hate us. Our policies have created the problem only different policies will fix it.

  8. orionATL says:

    the term “radicalized” (really the preposional verb “radicalized by”) seems one of the more pointless, attention-diverting way to describe aggressive behavior by arab muslims.

    would we say that dillon roof was “radicalized” by white supremacist propaganda? no. though we certainly could.

    would we say chris harper-mercer was “radicalized” by anti-christian beliefs? no.

    would we say robert lewis dear was “radicalized” by anti-abortion propaganda? no. though we certainly could.

    so how is it only syed farook is described as “radicalized (by)” ?

    well, for one thing the “by” lets us point fingers outside the united states to a perceived enemy, an enemy whom we engaged as such. it lets us blame and hold responsible thought and speech, including thought and speech in defense of one’s culture, perceived as under attack by the united states.

    in this particular case, “radicalized by” also just happens to point conveniently toward anwar al-awlaki as the agent of radicalization. al-awlaki is the american citizen assassinated by the obama administration. the admin’s legal rationale for doing so is questionable and still largely hidden.

    but the use of “radicalized by” extends far beyond al-awlaki.

    what if instead we considered white supremacist, anti-abortion, anti-christian, anti-european/american, etc., political views as merely rationalizations for the actions of sociopaths or mentally ill individuals? well, for one thing, we could then drop not only the uninformative “radicalized” and the attention-diverting “by” with its focus on some third party, and place our focus instead squarely on detection and prevention. prevention, of course, would entail restrictions on automatic weapons and accompanying ammunition designs.

  9. scribe says:

    “… any such effort needs to stop countering ISIS propaganda and offering a positive vision that will be meaningful to those with grievances.”
    Well, you could start by … um … getting these disaffected youth meaningful, remunerative jobs with a real future.
    Part of my work recently has involved analyzing a lot of internet-based commercial activity. One of the big draws has been – surprise, surprise – websites offering young people places to find others to marry. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, indifferent. White, black, brown, yellow, whatever. One of the fundamental human drives is to find someone and make a home, a family and a life. Today’s world makes it actually pretty straightforward to find like-minded people to get together with but, at the same time, makes it astonishingly hard to make enough money in a job (that will be there tomorrow, too) that has some meaning and is useful (in all the ways Work can be such), let alone pay for a family today and know it can be done tomorrow.
    In the first days of the New Deal, Roosevelt pushed through the PWA (Public Works Administration), distinct from the later WPA (Works Progress Administration), which replaced it. The PWA was criticized for doling out make-work jobs – picking up trash, whatever. But it put some cash in the pockets of people who needed it, not just to eat but also to experience the dignity that having some cash and therefore being able to pay your way gives you. I can speak to the personal experience of being too broke to do much beyond stave off the creditors – “I don’t have it. I’ll pay you when I can and if that isn’t good enough for you, tough.” – and feed the dog before feeding myself. It wasn’t the empty stomach I had (the weight loss was actually welcome, sorta) so much as the constant unremitting grinding stress of not having enough to go around, not knowing when or if I would, knowing that the nut was far larger than anything I had a rational hope of covering, and having nowhere to turn while continuing to put up a front and slog forward. They say accepting charity is “bad”* but, even if it is, not eating is worse. *[That little sting you feel was pride…. Only it ain’t little.]
    Given the way Work is organized today, kids today wanting to get married, have families and all the rest are looking at a situation even worse than many young couples – or would-be couples – during the Great Depression. Back then there was hope things would “come back” because industrial society needed employees, if not immediately then someday soon. Is it any surprise, then, that some guy in West Philly with a bad history (and, given our present-day way of stomping on those who go even a little astray, little hope for anything better) would be seduced by the promise of Paradise and the call to support ISIS, somehow get a gun stolen from one cop, and shoot another out of the clear blue?
    Not really. Harry Truman, among others, made a point of reminding the Rethuglicans of his day that a lot of them were still alive thanks to the New Deal and Social Security. Not because they had directly received benefits from it. Rather, because it kept the mass of people whose lives were smashed by the Depression from looking at the people both not suffering and looking down their noses at the Poors, having had enough, and reaching for the deer rifle, the pitchfork or the meathook. Compare them to today’s kids who look at the deeds of the US government – how many women and children killed in Hellfire-blasted Pakistani weddings did Obama weep over? – and decide, consciously or not, that enough is enough and shoot up the holiday party at their job.
    A few minutes go the game went to commercial for some new movie coming soon called “Free State of Jones”, which appears to have a “fuck you, Establishment” message, set in Civil War grey, similar to the same one that seems to motivate so many of Trump’s followers, and not that different from that which draws kids to ISIS. It’ll succeed more, I suspect, than Obama’s call for a new propaganda offensive. He’s the guy who, after all, told everyone who would listen that “you can keep your health insurance if you like it” (I’m looking at you, BMAz.) . In other words, proven to be not worthy of belief.
    I’m not condoning violence, but I can see why it’s happening. But folks like Obama, even if they can see why from where they sit (which I doubt – they see what they want to see and nothing else), are incapable of or unwilling to do what needs to be done to stop it. It might offend their donor base.

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