Officials Talk Ways to |Fight Terrorists Online

     WASHINGTON (CN) – As the self-proclaimed Islamic State group uses social media in unprecedented ways to expand its reach, representatives of federal agencies told senators Wednesday of their efforts to wrest back control of the message battle.
     From the FBI’s struggles to overcome law enforcement challenges that come from the sheer amount of propaganda that ISIS — as the Islamic State is often called — puts out, to the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to use college students to help outduel terrorists online, agency officials said Wednesday they are trying to meet the radical groups on a new battlefield.
     “Like never before, social media allows overseas terrorists to reach into our communities to target our citizens as well as to radicalize and recruit,” Michael Steinbach, executive assistant director for the National Security branch of the FBI, told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
     As an example of the nimble-minded programs needed to combat ISIS’ powerful reach on the Internet, George Selim, director of Homeland Security’s Interagency Task Force on Countering Violent Extremism, praised the Peer-2-Peer Challenging Extremism contests his department launched in 2015.
     Through the program, students at 125 universities have worked with faculty advisers for academic credit to dream up social media campaigns to help put out positive “counter narratives” to neutralize ISIS propaganda. Selim told senators the program has made as many as one million social media impressions since its inception.
     Research has shown millennials are among those in the best position to hit back against radical propaganda, Selim said. He pointed to a statistic from the Rochester Institute of Technology that found exposure to its social media campaign dramatically increased favorable views towards Islam as an example of how the program works.
     Though the program has been around for three academic semesters, Selim said it could already be due for expansion.
     “I think this is one of the initiatives that we can take to scale significantly in the semesters to come and the program has the flexibility to allow us to scale or tweak or adjust our measurements, our assessments and the number of universities we’re implementing on a semester-by-semester basis,” Selim said at the hearing.
     Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who chaired the hearing, seemed intrigued by the idea but stressed the need for the agency to develop more substantial metrics than Selim was able to provide on the types of communities the effort is reaching. Portman also urged him that time is important and that ISIS has a head start.
     “You talked about three semesters, that’s good that we’ve gotten started but we’ve got a lot to catch up on,” Portman said.
     While the Department of Homeland Security detailed its efforts at home, the State Department lauded a program it has launched abroad to fight propaganda overseas.
     Through the Global Engagement Program, the State Department partners with nongovernmental organizations, schools and community groups in foreign countries to spread a counter-extremist message to at-risk people in foreign countries.
     Meagen LaGraffe, chief of staff to the coordinator and special envoy at the Global Engagement Center, said the “analytics-based organization” helps the United States get around the trust issues it has with at-risk people in the countries with the most defections to ISIS.
     “While the U.S. government has a good message to tell, we are not always the most credible voice to tell it,” LaGraffe said at the hearing.
     She hailed efforts in Kosovo, one of the European countries hit most hard by ISIS defections, to pump out anti-propaganda messages that prevent people from turning misguided thinking into acts of violence.
     But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questioned just how the program is choosing its partners overseas. She worried about money sent to foreign groups disappearing or a lack of solid performance metrics hurting its effectiveness.
     “It all sounds great and I want it to be great,” McCaskill said. “But I also know that if we’re not paying attention as to who we’re paying and how, it’s how money walks away.”
     Later in the hearing McCaskill drew parallels between ISIS’ strategies of recruitment and those of gangs in the 1990s. The agency officials who testified before the committee assured her they are pulling information from all of the research they can from previous government actions to cut the legs out from gangs in the past.
     The urgency of the moment was clear at the hearing, with lawmakers repeatedly referencing recent terror attacks in Orlando, Bangladesh and Istanbul. The attacks show that while ISIS is losing physical territory in the Middle East, it is seeking to expand through the Internet, agency officials said.
     “We need you very badly right now to be able to have a very effective counter message out there,” Portman told the officials at the hearing.

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