When fighting terrorism with military force, the United States, if it so chooses, is unmatched in both innovation and prowess. But when the terrorism battle is confined to the media and communications sphere, U.S. capabilities are lagging.
Social media and the Internet have proved to be a two-sided proposition: one for good, one for evil. And the federal government is playing catch-up.
Richard Stengel, undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, addressed this issue recently in Washington, acknowledging, “The information environment has radically changed. … It’s a big challenge because government doesn’t always move rapidly or nimbly.”
Stengel, a former managing editor for Time magazine who has been with the U.S. State Department since 2013, was speaking at a forum titled “Fighting ISIL on Social Media: Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age.” The event was hosted by Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Stengel oversees several state department bureaus including the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
Among his main missions is learning how to fight ISIL (or ISIS) on the battlefield of communications and digital technology. “We’re not perfect,” Stengel said, “but we are perfectible. This battle against ISIL is less than a year-and-a-half old.”
Stengel related that, with the White House’s blessing, an eclectic mix of experts in analytics, marketing, partnerships and content sharing from the private sector helped the State Department develop four action steps to counter destructive ISIL messaging:
▪ Data: “We have to be more data driven, and use data analytics,” said Stengel, who added that Arabic (80 percent) is ISIL’s top messaging language of choice, followed by Russian, French and English a distant fourth at only 7 percent. “We don’t have anything like that in government. We need to know about what works and what doesn’t work. And be more focused on audience.”
▪ Campaigns: “About a month ago, we did what we called a defector’s campaign. Straight testimony from young men and women who left the areas of Iraq and Syria,” Stengel said, referencing how Twitter and Facebook were used to disseminate the anti-message about the lure of the caliphate straight from the mouths of young folk. “We did a campaign a couple of weeks ago on ISIL’s abuse of women.”
▪ Partnerships: “It’s not a big revelation to say government isn’t always the best messenger for the message we want to get out there,” Stengel said. “Who are the valid third-party folks who really have credibility there? We helped create something called the Sawab Center with the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi, which does counter-ISIL and counter-violence extremist messaging.”
▪ Corporations: “We all want to work better with tech companies, with media companies,” Stengel said. “I think in a lot of ways, the tech companies have been the unsung heroes in the counter-ISIL campaigns. What Twitter has done in taking down thousands and thousands of handles and interrupting hashtags. There’s a unanimity of interest here.”
Stengel added that more information on the State Department’s media message to counter ISIL will be released to the public early in 2016. He touched on the issue of encryption, the computer technology that helps banks, for instance, keep our accounts safe from the nefarious but recently has become a game-changing tool for ISIL propaganda. Encryption allows ISIL, through the aid of platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp, to basically communicate underground, outside the purview of a general audience.
Stengel said encryption is good in one sense because ISIL “can’t message in a large way,” but it creates tension between the federal government and the private sector as both entities try to strike a balance between privacy and national security issues.
Gregory Clay is a former editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.