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Talking to Terrorists Online

The State Department's new weapon in the fight against extremists? College students.
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It is widely understood that a number of federal government agencies monitor and even seek to infiltrate jihadist websites. But a program initiated in 2009 to debate the visitors to extremist Islamic sites has yet to find a comfortable organizational niche. The so-called “counterpropaganda” effort against the terrorist Internet is run out of the White House by the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and the National Security Council’s senior director for global engagement. The actual outreach to individuals visiting the websites has been overseen by the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, tasked with “engaging, informing and influencing foreign publics.”

Given the layers of bureaucracy, it is surprising that anything was accomplished, but State Department linguists were finally up and running in 2012 in what was labeled a “Viral Peace” initiative, which trolled radical sites anonymously to argue with militants and sometimes confuse them. This was followed in 2013 by a program that included State Department staffers who identified themselves online as U.S. government employees. They attempted to enter into discussions refuting extremist views, but they found they were treated with little respect by would-be jihadis.

The program has now morphed into something called “Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism,” which is run by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, as a joint project with the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook. In conjunction with universities around the world, the project seeks to “empower students to design and pilot new digital products and tools that counter violent extremist narratives and reach those susceptible to violent extremism messaging.” It produces anti-terrorism campaigns using what is referred to as “counter-speech” to debate radical viewpoints. Organizers claim that there is little U.S.-government input into the content and reject charges that it is “a different type of propaganda.” They prefer to describe it as “authentic.”

thisarticleappearsFacebook is providing much of the seed money and operational costs, as well as training the students in online message optimization. In its current run, 45 universities competed over a period of 15 weeks. Its six finalists represented schools in Pakistan, Switzerland, Kuwait, and Finland, plus two American colleges, the University of Arkansas and West Point—which shows that the effort is not just limited to overseas. In fact, the program’s director, Homeland Security’s George Selim, has said, “the issue I’m concerned with most is the recruitment and radicalization of young people, specifically in the United States.” The first time the program ran, in early 2015, the winner was Missouri State University.

The assumption is that students will instinctively understand how best to argue points on social media, which may or may not be true. But unfortunately, these gentler efforts to reach out to those being radicalized might soon be preempted by an antsy Congress, which is seeking to compel the companies that run the social networking sites to report “terrorist activity,” and by political candidates like Hillary Clinton, who are calling for aggressive steps to “deprive jihadists of virtual territory.”

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.