Q: How hard is it to convince kids not to run away and join IS?
A: Harder than you might think.
The Think Again Turn Away (#thinkagainturnaway) social media campaign is the US State Department’s fledgling response to its counterpart from the Islamic State (IS). Launched in English in December 2013, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy is to convince “fence sitters” who are following extremist propaganda to “think again” and “turn away” from a decision to join violent groups. It has over 7,000 followers on Twitter and averages seven tweets/day.
You’d think it would be an easy sell to discourage young people from leaving everyone and everything they have ever known to risk their lives in a violent, ideological battle with a group of strangers whose own stomach-churning PR content includes beheadings and babies stomping on body parts. Yet, according to State Department estimates, 12,000 foreigners from 50 countries, including America and Canada, have traveled to Syria to join the fight.
The Think Again Turn Away campaign is up against a sophisticated, successful foe, who, in 13 years, has gone from a shaky, hand-held camera shot of Osama bin Laden speaking in formal Arabic to expertly crafted videos enhanced by the skills and languages of foreign members and studio facilities in captured cities.
“When I started,” says a former State Department senior counterterrorism adviser who helped set up the digital outreach, “the thinking was, ‘We don’t dignify this stuff with a response’”1.
However, the surprising success of the IS campaign, in terms of controlling the narrative, boosting morale, attracting new supporters, demoralizing their enemies, raising funding and painting the portrait of an organized, unbeatable force has caused the US to think again.
In the last year, the US campaign has fought back with content over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. They produced a parody recruitment video using graphic images from IS material which attracted over one million views. They curate content such as powerful testimonials from disgruntled IS deserters. Organizers count on like-minded voices from civil society and faith-based organizations to chime in. However, the US campaign is at a disadvantage.
The US doesn’t have the same power of message
Think Again Turn Away messages focus on exposing the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in IS propaganda. “The Islamic State kills Muslims” is a popular theme, as is the rejection of the group by Muslim scholars. However, it is up against an IS message that is about “the narcissism of youth, the quest for meaning and immediacy and the search for camaraderie and adventure”2, concedes the English –language project coordinator, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez.
The US is coming from behind in terms of trust
The US government has serious credibility issues among youth of Middle Eastern descent. US actions are seen as self-serving and biased against the entire Arab world. The audience the US is aiming at is predisposed to disbelieve them, and its track record of understanding historical grudges is poor.
The US has a manpower deficit
The US budgets just a few million dollars annually toward Think Again Turn Away. Out of 23 full-time State Department employees, only two work on English content. By contrast, the IS has far more resources and is supported by legions of volunteers who re-message its propaganda 24 hours a day — “knights of the uploading” — as they are known.
It’s hard, of course, to measure how many would-be extremists are actually turning away from violence because of Think Again Turn Away. Recently, al-Shabaab leaders issued a directive saying not to interact with State Department accounts because they spread lies about the mujahidin. This is perhaps as good an indicator as any that things have started to turn around.