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State Department combats Islamic State recruitment via social media

State Department relies upon YouTube, Twitter campaigns to combat Islamic State recruitment

The U.S. State Department continues to ratchet up anti-terrorism efforts for an English-speaking audience, with its latest YouTube video satirizing recruitment efforts for the Islamic State.

The video, “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ land (ISIS/ISIL)," which attracted thousands of views in late August, is one of a series of English-language social media outreach efforts by the State Department, as officials see an uptick in terrorism propaganda online aimed at English speakers.

In the piece, which was released in July, the State Department parodies the group’s recruitment by promising that followers will learn “useful new skills,” such as “blowing up mosques” and “crucifying and executing Muslims.”

An ominous soundtrack plays over images of mass killings, explosions, crucifixions and beheadings. Much of the footage was repurposed from Islamic State videos, some from news reports from organizations such as Vice, a Brooklyn-based media company that recently released a documentary on the group. 

There is no narration. Instead, phrases and words appear on screen, often set off with exclamation marks. The piece includes the phrase, “Travel is inexpensive because you won’t need a return ticket!” superimposed over a series of bloodied corpses.

The tone of the video changes at the end with the words: "Think again, turn away."

The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which created the video, manages a presence across YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and other popular social media platforms through its “Think Again Turn Away” campaign in languages including Arabic and Urdu.

The accounts are laden with images and news coverage of terrorism-related deaths, as well as personal stories of radicalized recruits who have become disillusioned with their militant leaders, all designed to dissuade potential terrorist sympathizers.

The Islamic State has increasingly used social media in an attempt to attract followers.

The group recently released videos showing the execution of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and another U.S. citizen was killed in August fighting for the group in Syria. British and American citizens are believed to be Islamic State recruits.

The State Department’s anti-terrorism outreach division, which began under President Obama in 2011, turned to social media in English in 2013 to counter an increasing amount of militant Islamist propaganda on English-language social networks, according to a senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the campaign.

The division has produced content in Arabic and Urdu since 2011 and included Somali in 2012.

Videos like the latest satire have been common on the government’s Arabic channels, where officials hope to counter the prevalence of Arabic pro-militant content online. New efforts in English reflect a wider audience for propaganda that is spreading beyond Arabic speakers, the official said.

Online users have noticed the State Department’s efforts in English, with the Twitter account for the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign having more than 6,000 followers and the latest video recording more than 200,000 views.

Yet some social scientists question the effectiveness of the campaign's strategy of showcasing the violence and death caused by groups like Islamic State.

Such publicity can sometimes have the opposite effect and motivate participants to take part, said Dr. Jeff Victoroff, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at USC who studies the psychology of terrorism. Though he had not seen the most recent video, Victoroff said that past government anti-terrorism outreach efforts had fallen into similar patterns.

"There is a psychological error in trying to scare people off with threats that something might be exciting and thrilling," he said. "If you challenge a young adult, particularly a male, with the fact that something might be especially difficult or challenging, you're just exciting them."

Rather than trying to persuade vulnerable recruits not to take part in violent exploits, policymakers need to reach communities through authorities they respect, he said.

"The source of authority has to, at a bare minimum, come from a Muslim leader," Victoroff said. "Their source of authority is someone within their group, just as we might respond to a police officer or a teacher or a senator."

Contact Matt at matt.hansen2@latimes.com or @mtthnsn

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