ISIS fight needs to go digital

Fighting ISIS on social media
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Story highlights

  • ISIS uses a "ladder of engagement" to guide recruits from public sites to encrypted, secretive messaging programs
  • Authors: With government support, community-led initiatives countering violent extremism may be an effective answer to digital recruitment

Olivia Zetter and Abby Deift recently completed their master's degrees in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Their thesis was on combating online recruitment of violent extremists. Zetter previously worked on U.S. government-funded stabilization and counter-violent extremism programs in Pakistan and the Middle East. Deift has worked on Capitol Hill and for the federal government, with a focus on technology policy and strategic communications. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut underscore the reality that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will not limit itself to a near war. And it doesn't have to: ISIS uses popular online applications created in the United States and Europe to recruit, radicalize and organize people all over the world. Indeed, while traditional military efforts focus on making inroads in Syria and Iraq, ISIS continues to build traction in the cyber world. This is terror in the digital age, and it requires a digital response.

ISIS' polished and savvy online presence is considered one of its greatest assets, and the sheer numbers involved underscore its reach -- one study suggested that at one point, there were an estimated 46,000 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts. But numbers alone do not tell the whole story -- it is the sophisticated content that enables ISIS to initiate meaningful connections with followers, with the group's propaganda consistently combined with easily recognizable memes that viewers can personalize and repost.
ISIS customizes content by generation, geography and gender. The group has, for example, used A/B testing, a strategy often employed by political and public awareness campaigns to determine which messages are resonating with the audience. In fact, before officially announcing itself as an "Islamic caliphate," ISIS ran a trial hashtag in Arabic, roughly translated as #We_Demand_Shaykh_al-Baghdadi_ Declare_The_Caliphate, to gauge public reaction.
    In order to motivate people to act offline, ISIS uses a "ladder of engagement" to guide potential recruits from public, easily accessible sites (Twitter, YouTube) to anonymous, mediated conversations in open forums and then to encrypted direct messaging programs where they are introduced to physical contacts or given actionable instructions.
    More broadly, ISIS is able to present a single narrative as the answer to a wide array of individual grievances. The number and range of foreign fighters traveling to Syria -- over 20,000 from 90 countries -- is a clear demonstration of its continued success.
    So far, government officials, politicians and academics have struggled to devise a strategy to counter ISIS online, with the U.S. government and private sector focusing on shutting down ISIS' online accounts. But while these "takedowns" are important, this approach can end up being akin to a game of whack-a-mole as accounts are quickly reintroduced under new names. Removing or discrediting individual arguments is therefore not enough.
    Of course, coming up with a more comprehensive strategy is not easy for a number of reasons, including the decentralized nature of online communications, the difficulties in attribution back to a single source (even when the messages are not encrypted), and the growing sense among the public that domestic counter-violent extremism programs over the past decade have crossed the line from community engagement and assistance to surveillance and privacy violations.
    But this does not mean there is nothing that can be done. The same communications tools that ISIS has co-opted were born in our vital and thriving private sector, so they present an untapped resource for responding to the threat posed by extremists.
    U.S. officials have already started to call for cyber response units and private sector engagement to investigate the likely use of encrypted online communications platforms. However, while this is a promising start, the most effective role for the U.S. government in this space is that of a convener, adviser and resource provider for community-led initiatives that counter online violent extremism.
    Community members and private sector stakeholders have the agility and credibility needed to produce and disseminate alternative narratives, and U.S. government efforts should seek to amplify credible voices and leverage these existing capacities. In fact, U.S. technology companies, communications firms and the creative industry can be key partners in crafting sensible policy recommendations for their products and supporting initiatives to counter violent extremism that spreads online.
    On a practical level, this means taking advantage of specific tools and skill sets from technology companies, including platform usage, ad redirection, and monitoring and evaluation, as well as helping anticipate new modes of communication. Other organizations can, for their part, help design and produce content to enhance the quality and increase the appeal of counter-narratives.
    Counter and alternative communications such as these can help reduce susceptibility to violent extremist ideology, facilitate disengagement from that ideology and eliminate the space for it to thrive. Two good examples of what can be done include the #NotInMyName campaign, through which Muslims can challenge ISIS' ideology and actions, and the #I'llRideWithYou campaign, which supported Muslim commuters after the 2014 terrorist attack in Sydney, Australia. Both were successful examples of viral, community-led online initiatives launched on Twitter. (Other good examples of effective social campaigns are the "It Gets Better" and "Bully Free: It Starts with Me" anti-bullying projects, which provide a positive message and create a sense of belonging using YouTube -- key components of successful narratives -- and carry celebrity-endorsed credibility.)
    President Barack Obama has said that military campaigns will not be enough to defeat ISIS -- that we must disrupt the group's narrative. He is right. But to do so, we must recognize that terror is adapting to the digital age, and so we must use our own digital resources to defeat it.
    ISIS has co-opted the online space. We need to get in the game.