The U.S. wants to attack ISIS on social media, but it probably isn’t going to work

The U.S. has launched thousands of airstrikes against the group that calls itself the Islamic State since last August, blunting its momentum and turning the tide on its rapid advances on battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

But in a different campaign, one being waged on social media, the U.S. is months — perhaps years — behind. And it’s a big problem for a coalition looking to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as President Barack Obama has said.

“Better late than never,” said Victor Asal, a professor at the University of Albany who has studied extremist groups’ use of social media.

This week, the U.S. government announced preparations to beef up its online campaign against extremist groups, especially the one known as the Islamic State, ISIS, or ISIL. Social media — especially Twitter — has become a powerful tool for extremists looking to lure potential recruits into the organization.

According to The New York Times, the U.S. government wants to counter ISIS’ social strategy by consolidating anti-ISIS social messaging under an expanding State Department branch called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. It would also promote messaging by Arab allies and Muslim academics and community leaders in ISIS’ hotbeds, hoping to persuade prospective ISIS recruits against joining.

But experts question whether the effort can be effective, and whether the government is undertaking it too late. It will be difficult to qualify what constitutes as a success under the new social push, unlike the military campaign slowed down ISIS. And some wonder whether the U.S. government being even loosely tied to the social campaign sends the right message.

“It’s important and worthwhile. But it won’t make a discernible difference near term,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the risk research firm Eurasia Group. “ISIS is not just using social media effectively, they’re also putting ‘points on the board’ for potential followers with their repeated ultraviolent executions.”

The CIA estimated last September that ISIS’ ranks numbered between 20,000 and 31,500. Recruitment has shown no signs of slowing down — last week, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center told the House Homeland Security Committee the rate of foreign fighters traveling to join the group is “unprecedented.”

ISIS’ social campaign isn’t new. The organization and its supporters tweet out tens of thousands of slick, propaganda messages each day. They have produced Hollywood-esque movie trailers warning the U.S. and its allies. Its social savvy dates back well before it proclaimed itself a “caliphate” last June.

“The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorists Twitter accounts — it’s all designed to target today’s young people online in cyberspace,” Obama said Wednesday during a White House summit on countering extremist violence.

Screenshot from an ISIS propaganda film.

Screenshot from an ISIS propaganda film.

The U.S. started bombing ISIS targets last August. So the question comes naturally: Why has it taken so long for the U.S. government to do anything about this phenomenon?

“Part of it, I think, is the culture,” said Rick Brennan, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank. “The State Department has a long history of doing things a certain way, and social media is relatively new. And as a culture, I don’t think that our institutions have yet caught up to how to best use social media as a way of messaging.”

But that presents another problem. Brennan was in Iraq for around eight years, working part of that stint as a senior civilian adviser to the U.S. military. Brennan, a career Army officer, helped spearhead an effort aimed at massaging the perception of the U.S. with Iraqis who grew to hate the country they saw as invaders and occupiers.

Some aspects of the effort were, in his eyes, a success. But Brennan learned something he thinks holds lessons for new U.S. efforts to combat ISIS today: No matter what you do, some people will always hate you.

Young recruits are often lured to extremist groups like ISIS, experts say, because of the impressive way in which it presents the chance to be part of something important. They promise recruits they are joining a movement that can change the world — and that will reward them in the afterlife. ISIS believes in a strict, almost literalist interpretation of the Koran, and they prey on religion to convince young people looking for something meaningful in their lives to join.

Because of that factor, the most effective U.S. strategy toward persuading young recruits against joining will come in bolstering the general efforts of local Muslim religious and community leaders.

“Because they are likely to have higher credibility with young Muslims who are potential recruits, I think that the efforts of familial and other local networks, Sunni Muslim religious and jurisprudential leaders, and the efforts of Muslim states themselves are likely to be the most effective channels for dissuading young Muslims to take up arms and join the Islamic State,” said Eric Larson, a senior policy analyst also at RAND Corp.

“I think that U.S. efforts to support and reinforce local efforts are therefore likely to be more effective than direct U.S. messaging.”

An Indian Muslim youth reading verses of Holy Quran on a smart phone.

An Indian Muslim youth reading verses of Holy Quran on a smart phone.

But it will also be hard to qualify what constitutes as “effective” or successful. Will success be defined as broad as the prevention of terror attacks, which are a result of many factors? Or as narrow as a reduction of activity on social media, which may not paint the whole picture?

While he was in Iraq, Brennan and the people he worked with studied polls. In the end, he said they didn’t move Iraqis’ opinions of the U.S. much. Which brings back his main point: There’s a segment of the population that will never turn.

“People accept things because they were taught them and they believe them to be facts,” he said. “There’s nothing we’re going to do through social media or the Internet to change those engrained thoughts.”