The rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has challenged the way governments rage wars with terrorist groups. Unlike al Qaeda and other previous militant groups, ISIS has been successful with using social media campaigns to spread propaganda created by tech-savvy young insurgents. Most countries, especially Western countries being targeted by ISIS, are not only lacking effective social media skills to fight back, but they are also falling behind in creating effective cyber security infrastructures.
At the beginning of this year the US Department of State launched a “peer-to-peer” contest with 23 universities around the world to create digital media campaigns that challenge ISIS and curb the number of young people joining and committing acts of violence.
The three winning schools were invited to Washington a couple of weeks ago to present their ideas to judges from different US agencies. Students from Missouri State University presented a middle school curriculum – One95 – that teaches students about extremism. Curtin University in Australia sent students who created 52Jumaa, an app that connects young Muslims worldwide with daily positive messages and encourages them to participate in social justice projects. The third school, Canada’s Royal Mount University, created a website that challenges misconceptions about extremism.
Whether any of these initiatives will be effective in the long run is an entirely different question. For one, some of the winning students are hitting a wall when dealing with government bureaucracy. The Missouri students feel that their project is not as effective with reaching their peers as they would like it to be because the State Department wants them to use the term “Countering Violent Extremism.”
“We were throwing ‘violent extremism’ out there, and they’re like, what is that?” said Addison Reed, a 22-year-old advertising major told Foreign Policy magazine. “But the second we said ‘terrorism’ or ‘ISIS’, they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
And then there is also a question about if this initiative is actually reaching out to the targeted young people who might be attracted to or at risk of joining ISIS. The State Department required that winning projects be in English, although some of the other schools in predominately Muslim countries were able to effectively engage audiences in Arabic.
ISIS may have already won the cyber war with their highly sophisticated digital media strategy, which unfortunately overshadows the three winning projects so far.
This initiative is clearly a work in progress, but we will follow up on this in future posts.