U.S. Fights Terrorism One Tweet At A Time

We've seen how Twitter has motivated grass-roots movements such as the Arab Spring, when dissenters took to the streets to protest and unseat governments. This skillful use of social media proved so successful over the years, jihadists have taken this lead to use Twitter to recruit and add sympathizers to their ranks.

In turn, the U.S. government followed suit. In a somewhat reversal of policy followed during the Bush administration -- that is -- "not to negotiate with terrorists," today the U.S. is more open to communicating. While not compromising, they are now however open to engaging with al Qaeda and other extremist groups outright on Twitter.

Edges of the Twittersphere populated by Extremists

In a recent CNN report, correspondent Tim Hume described this new form of communication between the West and Middle East as something that's evolving. Since "the marketplace is now online, and the corners of it are dedicated to Islamic extremist talk. . . the U.S. State Department has launched social media efforts to engage jihadists. . . contesting their claims with the intention of dissuading potential converts."

No longer the Silent Majority

While this is not considered a diplomatic move, it's been determined by the U.S., there is a missed opportunity by remaining silent. So to that end, President Obama and Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton at the time] signed Executive Order 13584 in 2011 to guide and permit the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) to communicate with the enemy via a "wide variety of interactive digital environment that had previously been ceded to extremists."

"We are actually giving al Qaeda the benefit of the doubt because we are answering their arguments," saysAlberto FernandezAlberto Fernandez Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the initiative, who administers the program. "The way I see it is we are participating in the marketplace of ideas."

U.S. Volleys Tweets like Scud Missiles

So, for the past three years and with very little knowledge picked up by the mainstream media, the U.S. government has been "messaging" via social networks [specifically Twitter] in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali attempting to "penetrate the virtual echo chambers" of these new communication channels.

A volley of tweets that occurred just recently underscores how the U.S. is now  responding to terrorist tweets in real-time. When a pro-jihadist Twitterer with the handle @seyf_al_adl zealously posted an image of the desecrated Buddha statue destroyed by the Taliban, the CSCC's Twitter profile [aka @ThinkAgain_DOS ] immediately respondied to  "Destroying ancient culture out of hatred and backwardness are a feature of al Qaeda's ideology."

@Seyf_al_Adl@Seyf_al_AdlThe Islamist in a responding tweet attempted to diminish the importance of the statue by indicating the deaths of Taliban children should be of greater concern. To which the U.S. pointed out why there was a food shortage, but also that "blowing up statues is not a  solution for hunger."

When @BlackFlagWorld asked "How does someone point a gun at a child and just pull the trigger?" - the U.S. condemned such acts but also attached a graphic photo of a child who was allegedly killed by the al Qaeda.

The @ThinkAgain_DOS Twitter account now has over 2200 followers and almost all of their tweets end with the hashtag #thinkagainturnaway. It's important to note that this transparency is a departure for a government that's been criticized regularly ever since the War on Terror began of keeping too much hidden from the purview of its people.

Trolling the Internet

However this initiative is not without its critics. Some have been vocal about the perception of a "tit for tat" exchange. Journalist Jonathan Krohn who curates tweets for @JihadiStuff has gone so far as to describe the State Department's tweets as "trolling." It's used as a "psy-op tool, it's pretty laughable (as) it target journalists and analysts with as much verve as attacking jihadis."

For his part, Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea, rejects the "State Department troll" label.

"Some people use that because I think it's convenient shorthand for an adversarial relationship," he said. "To me, (a troll) ... is a person who is annoying and obnoxious and stupid. Well, we're none of those things, because we're answering their charges with facts."

Ungoverned Space

"We seek to contest space that previously had been ceded to our adversary," Fernandez stated. "Al Qaeda tends to thrive in the ungoverned spaces of the world, such as the Sahara desert, or places in Somalia or Yemen or Syria. The Internet is also an ungoverned space, so it's an area of opportunity for them," he added.

Can't Convert? Divert!

Fernandez also noted that the CSCC's efforts were not aimed at converting extremists -- although "it would be nice" -- but rather it's an effort to reach the wider audience of onlookers that jihadists are trying to influence on a daily basis. "In a way, we're picking a fight with the extremists, because the extremists are there to radicalize other people," he said.

Expensive Tweets

Knowing there has to be a line item in the State Department's budget to run an enterprise of this magnitude, some criticize the cost. Maintaining a staff of 50, it's been reported that CSCC is responsible for a $5 million a year program. Yet, according to many including Fernandez himself, it is very difficult to quantify the results in any kind of systematic manner.

As those in the corporate world know, social media is a medium that's very good for messaging and branding purposes, but it takes a lot more strategic and targeted efforts to actually show a return on investment (ROI).

While I think the U.S. is on the right track, this initiative needs more muscle behind it to prove that Americans are making headway - that they have actually thwarted the efforts of its enemies by engaging in such a fashion. Basic "tit for tat" exchanges at the end of the day are analogous to gangs of kids name-calling each other in the school-yard. Twitter as echo chamberTwitter as echo chamberWhile some inroads can be made, we're still only dealing with words in 140-character sound bytes. And when banter transitions into anger, it kind of drowns out the message. It can escalate to the point where all you get out of that echo chamber - is just that - the return echo of your own voice - or worst scenario, running the risk of what the famous English bard once told us: " A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."