Opinion

President Obama's long-shot plan to counter Islamic State propaganda

Obama administration seeks to 'degrade' Islamic State's propaganda ability. Good luck with that

One paradox about Islamic State is its use of social media and other 21st century technology to advance its efforts to turn the clock back a few hundred years.

The ultra-violent group vows strict adherence to the specific teachings of the prophet Muhammad from more than 14 centuries ago. But its main recruiting tools have been Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the Internet in general, which have spread the group's statements and (typically grisly) videos.

So, what should the United States and other countries aligned against Islamic State do in response to Islamic State propaganda?

As part of its efforts to counter "violent extremism," the Obama administration announced Wednesday four main "social media solutions." Most of these involved broadcasting a countermessage to the Islamic State's screeds -- a digital "Voice of America" aimed not at the citizens trapped in an evil empire, but at the global targets of an evil ideology.

Buried in the fourth and final bullet point on the White House fact sheet, though, was a more aggressive idea. "The United States has designated a Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the Department of State to drive U.S. Government efforts aimed at discrediting terrorists’ propaganda and degrading their ability to disseminate messages and recruit fighters," with a "particular focus" on Islamic State.

The language evokes images of teams of youthful, Red-Bull-and-ramen-powered coders hijacking Islamic State Facebook and Twitter accounts to post Rainbow Brite GIFs and Dalai Lama quotes while scouring YouTube for decapitation videos to take down. You can almost see generals from the U.S. Central Command, whose Twitter and YouTube feeds were hacked in January by supposed Islamic State adherents, cheering in the background.

But as much as the world might benefit from someone slapping an electronic cone of silence on Islamic State, trying to do so seems like a fool's errand.

We've seen this already. Anonymous -- no slouch at disrupting other people's use of the Net -- claimed earlier this month to have taken down 800 Twitter accounts and a dozen Facebook pages associated with Islamic State. But as The Guardian noted last year, such setbacks are likely to be only temporary. Any Islamic State follower with a smartphone can start new feeds to replace the old ones; these sites aren't equipped to make sure that something taken down stays down.

As filmmakers and musicians can attest, it's well-nigh impossible to reel in content after it's started reproducing across the net. Meanwhile, new ways to communicate online are continually emerging. If the anti-Islamic State forces somehow managed to make YouTube and Facebook a no-beheadings zone, the self-proclaimed caliphate would use other sites and services, and potential recruits would find their way there.

Which is not to say that it's not worth trying. The brutal videos are an important part of Islamic State's battle plan, designed to weaken resistance and promote submission. It's just to suggest that the chances of success are low.

That means the meatier part of the Obama administration's plan is on the counterprogramming side. It has three elements. One is a "digital communications hub" that the United States will launch with the United Arab Emirates. Two others are efforts at universities and social media "technology camps" to develop digital content that "discredits violent extremist narratives and amplifies positive alternatives."

OK, so maybe that's like trying to draw teens away from gangster rap by playing a lot of A Tribe Called Quest. Nevertheless, it's worth trying to show would-be jihadists the reality of life with Islamic State before they buy into the group's propaganda.

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

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