Marketing to Extremists: Waging War in Cyberspace
Andrew Byers and Tara Mooney
Online, the Islamic State is a technologically savvy, sophisticated, and nimble organization that learns from its mistakes and from the actions of the Western intelligence services and NGOs that have sought to counter it. It is no secret that past and current efforts to reach potential terrorists before they can become radicalized and committed to a path of jihad and terrorism have proved inadequate. To use the language of online marketers, countering ISIS’s online activities will require quality content disseminated on a massive scale, with careful product placement. Placing counter-messaging products into platforms and forums that extremists frequent will increase the chances of potential terrorist recruits coming into contact with narratives outside of ISIS’ control.
ISIS’s cyber efforts have paid off; the FBI told Congress in July 2016 that “the message of radicalization spreads faster than we imagined just a few years ago.”[i] The number of foreigners who have been inspired by the Islamic State’s online propaganda to travel to Syria and Iraq (or elsewhere) and participate in the fighting is unclear, but most estimates place the tally at more than 20,000. Others have been set on the path of radicalization by ISIS’s online propaganda and have become “lone wolf” attackers in the United States or in Europe.[ii] Demographically speaking, the people who ISIS is most interested in targeting for recruitment came of age in the twenty-first century as “digital natives”; they have lived their entire lives surrounded by ubiquitous online communications and have embraced it in technologically sophisticated ways.[iii] ISIS knows how to appeal to these potential jihadis. Reaching them with counter-messages will require a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach.
America’s public and private sectors must commit the resources needed to carry out this counter-messaging, though we must understand that such an information war cannot be won in a short period of time, but rather, must be carried out resolutely and patiently, even in the absence of quantitative metrics of success. For example, how will we assess our effectiveness, when one measure of success is how many potential jihadis did not decide to carry out lone wolf attacks or travel to Syria? This is an entirely new and different kind of fight from any we have been engaged previously. Even without quantitative measures of effectiveness fully fleshed out, we can use scale, quality content, and product placement to improve current efforts to shape--and hopefully win--the online propaganda wars to come.
Understanding Our Options
In terms of quality counter-messaging content, the State Department--the lead U.S. agency in this fight—has already acknowledged its past failures in content production. Notably, it has acknowledged that it may not be the voice best-suited to convince Middle Eastern or Muslim recruits to turn away from the path of terrorism. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center has pivoted away from producing content, and instead now supports the efforts of localized “proxies,” thereby supporting other voices that understand the context, culture, and push/pull factors that resonate within Muslim communities.[iv] It is not only government entities involved in this struggle; various NGOs also participate in counter-jihad content creation, drawing upon former extremists, notable academics, and a multitude of languages.[v]
The West’s efforts to date have mostly created a series of reactive, ineffective counter-narratives that potential jihadis dismiss. We advocate for precision messaging; for example, past efforts by State Department entities have mined public social media data to identify individuals who may be susceptible to extremism and then pay for YouTube ads that counter extremist messaging. But we don’t need to mine public data to put counter messaging into the world of potential recruits. The United States must become aggressive and proactive in its anti-Islamic State online activities: it must immediately move to hijack the group’s own narratives and create alternatives.
When it comes to scale, the current efforts by the United States and its allies are merely a drop in the ocean of ISIS’s material. If ISIS posts nearly 100,000 messages each day, as the British House of Commons Defence Committee stated in 2015,[vi] then countering their content will take a significant amount of internet traffic or else we risk being drowned out. This component cannot be ignored or understated. Current counter-messaging efforts are not achieving enough volume to warrant a response by would-be extremists, let alone to spark an actual conversation or debate among extremists. If we have quality content and we know where to put it to reach potential recruits, we still cannot reach enough people without massively increasing the current volume of counter-messaging efforts.
When it comes to proper product placement for the counter-messaging, the best way to decide where and how to reach recruits is by watching ISIS itself. ISIS has had to transition from various platforms throughout its years of recruitment, including Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. ISIS’s supporters take an active role in finding new platforms, spreading propaganda, and shepherding others along to new sites and procedures. It is not uncommon for followers to post specific instructions on where to post or how to manipulate different platforms’ terms of service to remain undetected or prevent accounts from being shut down. As they communicate best practices to each other, they create a trail for analysts to follow and instructions for counter-messaging units in order to put counter content where recruits will see it, even if this sometimes results in informational “misfires.”
The opportunities afforded by focusing our efforts on these approaches are manifold. If we are able to effectively erode the Islamic State’s ability to use propaganda to inspire self-directed attacks in the West, it would be forced to expend its resources and personnel on directed attacks in the West if it wishes to continue such operations. Sending Islamic State operatives into the West to carry out attacks there is a much more difficult and costly proposition, and one that is vulnerable to the West’s traditional strengths in intelligence and counterterrorism.
A Starting Point
We have compiled a list of some of ISIS’s known recruitment practices, along with specific recommendations for ways that counter-messaging organizations could take advantage of them. This list is not meant to be comprehensive or static, but rather to serve as a starting point that could be executed immediately and without excessive cost or effort.
Keeping Followers as Twitter/Telegram Accounts are Shut Down: As Twitter has improved its process of shutting down Islamic State accounts, its supporters have devised strategies to maintain their network of followers from one account to their next. The most popular method is to simply add a number to their Twitter username and then to increase that number each time they are shut down and begin a new account. Thus, for example, followers of @Muslimah6 could find her on her new account @Muslimah7 after Twitter shut down her account. This method of maintaining followers has been adapted for Telegram as well. The Islamic State’s unofficial news channel “Khilafah News” is left public, meaning that new users can always find it. But this also allows Telegram to shut it down at any time. The administrators of Khilafah News add a number to the end of their channel’s invitation link and increase this number every time the previous channel is shut down by Telegram. It is important to remember that Islamic State recruiters want to be found in order to effectively recruit new members. This nomenclature pattern allows them to do just that. But more importantly, it creates an opportunity for those creating alternative narratives to put their content on a Telegram channel or a Twitter account that they know Islamic State supporters will follow. New iterations of the Khilafah News channel could be created, knowing that once Telegram shuts down the last Khilafah News channel Islamic State supporters would follow the new fake channel, believing it to be authentic Islamic State channels and increasing the likelihood that a recruit would be exposed to counter-messaging.
The Islamic State’s Hashtags: Since it began disseminating propaganda on social media, the Islamic State has embraced the power of hashtags. In 2014 it famously hijacked World Cup hashtags in English and Arabic in order to spread its propaganda and shock social media users who may not have been previously exposed to such messages. The group has also advertised hashtags for supporters to use when tagging and finding new propaganda. Just as the Islamic State hijacks popular hashtags, counter-messaging teams can utilize the group’s own hashtags when posting content on social media. This will put alternative narratives in the same social media conversation as the Islamic State’s propaganda and will increase the chances that a recruit would receive facts about the group. The U.S. government has begun to take tentative steps in this direction, but such efforts could be vastly expanded.
Promotion and Marketing: The Islamic State disseminates small propaganda pieces daily, but its larger propaganda pieces take more time. In order to build hype, the Islamic State typically advertises with multi-lingual “trailers” for large upcoming pieces. Dissemination of the pieces generally occur days later, but there is no set schedule. Upon dissemination, the group posts its videos on YouTube, social media, and various self-publishing sites. Teams that produce content to counter the Islamic State must have videos ready for dissemination at all times. Then as new Islamic State’s trailers begin to appear on social media, the counter-content can be disseminated first under the same name as the propaganda that the Islamic State is advertising and it must be placed on all of the sites that the group uses. Recruits will be checking frequently for the release and the Islamic State will actually be advertising and promoting pieces that could pull recruits away. This would effectively drown out the Islamic State’s content while increasing the likelihood that recruits see alternative narratives.
Take Advantage of Platform Restrictions and Features: Not all of the Islamic State’s content is violent and grotesque; it produces some content that does not show any violent images or videos whatsoever. This allows the content to be played on news programs and for it be posted on YouTube. Knowing that the Islamic State works to keep its content available on major publishing sites, counter-narrative agencies must do the same. If a recruit searches for the name of a popular propaganda video on YouTube or an equivalent site, counter-content should appear with the same name. Video creators can even pay to promote their content so that it tops a search list. A greater understanding for how various platforms choose the order of their search results would help counter content receive just as many hits, if not more, than Islamic State propaganda.
Maintaining YouTube Channels: The Islamic State has a carefully structured propaganda structure. It has central marketing agencies that run video content, radio broadcasts, and written publications. These “federal” programs are represented within each wilayat, or province, as well. Each wilayat produces its own multilingual videos and publications that are often featured in publications from the central agencies. Islamic State supporters have advanced this model even further. There are several known propaganda groups that support the Islamic State but are not run by official Islamic State employees. Supporters make their own content and publish it on YouTube, Twitter, Telegram, and various other social and self-publishing sites. Like the Islamic State’s agencies, they have their own calligraphic logos and follow predictable but evolving patterns. “Al-Haqq” is one such Islamic State-affiliated group that runs its own Telegram channels and YouTube accounts. It would be simple to create a YouTube account called “Al-Haqq,” utilizing the group’s logo and publishing content that appears to be Islamic State videos. In reality, these videos could contain counter-messaging content with the same names as known extremist productions.
In adopting these methods, even potential jihadis who are adept at hiding their identities or degree of radicalization would come into contact with alternative narratives that may cause them to question the narratives ISIS feeds to its supporters. It is important for analysts who study ISIS’s dissemination of propaganda to remain in constant contact with those working to counter ISIS’s messaging, helping the latter to evolve along with ISIS and other extremist groups. While we are currently scrambling to combat ISIS’s propaganda campaigns in the cyber domain, learning to develop the necessary approaches now will allow us to excel in future cyber wars with other extremist groups. Without a new strategy for winning the information war, the West will always be reactive and on the defensive as it struggles to compete with the Islamic State for the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. Most importantly, if we can create an adaptive and empowered cyber effort now, we will be better equipped for the terrorist groups that will learn from and advance the work that the Islamic State is doing now. Future jihadi organizations that come after the Islamic State can be expected to be even savvier users of social media and similar communications venues. Unless the West learns to use social media with the same level of sophistication, it will continue to lose the information war and fall further behind.
[i] Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director for the FBI’s National Security Branch, testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate, July 6, 2016, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/investigations/hearings/isis-online-countering-terrorist-radicalization-and-recruitment-on-the-internet_social-media.
[ii] Daniel Byman, “How to Hunt a Lone Wolf: Countering Terrorists Who Act on Their Own,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96, No. 2 (March/April 2017): 96-105.
[iii] Marc Prensky,” Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon vol. 9, no. 5 (October 2001): 1-6.
[iv] Joby Warrick, “How a U.S. team uses Facebook, guerrilla marketing to peel off potential ISIS recruits,” Washington Post, February 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bait-and-flip-us-team-uses-facebook-guerrilla-marketing-to-peel-off-potential-isis-recruits/2017/02/03/431e19ba-e4e4-11e6-a547-5fb9411d332c_story.html.
[v] Representative NGOs include the Counter Extremism Project, Families Against Terrorism and Extremism, and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. For examples of their work, see “Counter Extremism Project Unveils Technology to Combat Online Extremism,” Counter Extremism Project, June 17, 2016, https://www.counterextremism.com/press/counter-extremism-project-unveils-technology-combat-online-extremism; "Watch & Share," FATE, http://www.findfate.org/en/watch-share/; Jonathan Russell, "Helping Families to Safeguard from Extremism," FATE, http://www.findfate.org/en/helping-families-to-safeguard-from-extremism/; "One to One Online Interventions: A Pilot CVE Methodology," Institute for Strategic Dialogue, April 2016, http://www.strategicdialogue.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/One2One_Web_v9.pdf.
[vi] UK Parliament, “The Situation in Iraq and Syria and the Response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH),” February 5, 2015, https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmdfence/690/69008.htm.