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How to fight ISIS with its own 'weapon of choice,' social media
The threat of ISIS came into sharp focus this fall as ISIS soldiers and sympathizers acted out their twisted world view in a series of attacks first in Paris in November and then in a San Bernardino shooting a few weeks later. - photo by Chandra Johnson
The threat of ISIS came into sharp focus this fall as ISIS soldiers and sympathizers acted out their twisted world view in a series of attacks first in Paris in November and then in a San Bernardino shooting a few weeks later.

President Barack Obama has called ISIS killers with good social media, referring to the terror cells sophisticated ability to recruit and spread its message of hate online, sometimes using encryption messaging apps, or using mainstream outlets like Instagram.

While the White House has eschewed the idea of sending troops to ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria, intelligence agencies like the FBI are trying to combat ISIS message online. Thats no easy task, as FBI director James Comey told CNN in June, given privacy concerns for regular Americans that use apps and social media sites ISIS sometimes employs.

If the government cant control ISIS message online, social media companies will have to step up and help, argues associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Digital Terrorism and Hate Project Rabbi Abraham Cooper. For more than three decades, he has worked to fight antisemitism and in recent years has turned much of his focus to building understanding between Muslims and Jews. He has met with heads of state and religious leaders in Sudan, Jordan, Indonesia and Egypt. He has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

What is ISIS mission and how is social media key in achieving it?

Part of ISIS seductive attraction is an idea they tell you in marketing 101: Push one idea. They have one idea, the caliphate. They use this marketing tool to promote a key ideal, the ideal that theres going to be a worldwide Islamic caliphate running the world.

Theyre trying to encourage Muslims all over the world to subscribe to that "one good idea," to be part of their mission. That means you have to convince them youre serious about it. That might involve a tweet, a status update or a video. They use the Internet to say, "Take a look, the international coalition is against us, but we have control in Iraq and Syria. We taught a lesson to the horrible, secular French." We consider these to be horrific events, but they present them as great victories. The Internet, as the president has said, erases borders and you can become radicalized from afar. Its a very seductive worldview to young people looking for something to believe in, and you can communicate with an ISIS soldier online using four or five different technologies. But whats also important is that it doesnt sound like these are people who heard any voices to counter ISIS message.

When we say ISIS uses social media, what exactly are we talking about? How dord it specifically use social media to make people sympathetic to its cause?

For example, in the aftermath of the attacks in France you had tens of thousands of tweets. It was the same after the murders in France in a Jewish school yard, the recent stabbings in Holy Land, or the shootings in San Bernardino. Our first reaction is revulsion, but their reaction is to hold it up as a prop, a victory blow against infidels and use it as a recruiting tool. The Internet also enables them to bypass Muslim leaders and mosques and directly recruit and communicate with young individuals. Its everything from recruitment to training, and it allows them to do it without having their fingerprints directly on it.

Then they say, "You cant come to Syria? Fine, you can train with these videos and heres who you want to go after the non-believers." Theres an empowerment there. You have the sense of community created totally virtually online. They tell you youre signing up to do something bigger than yourself, its all in Gods name, and if you have guts to pick up a gun, youre going straight to heaven. Youre dying for the greatest cause. For a lot of people, it gives meaning to their lives.

Whats the difference between the way ISIS uses social media and the way other groups have used wartime propaganda in the past? What makes social media unique here?

The difference is that theyre able to reach out globally to recruit young men and women to join them. If you dont want to fight, they have another strategy for people who have creativity to make materials like gorgeous pro-ISIS posters. In World War II, the world had Look, Life and Time magazines. These people have come up with their own highly polished online magazines that cover everything from the lifestyle of the ISIS family to the recipe you should be using to make an improvised bomb. Its not strictly a product of the Internet age, but the delivery systems available to them for free would have been a dream to (Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph) Goebbels during the Nazi era or in the U.K. when they were trying to buck up their citizens during the Blitz. If the people coming up with these marketing campaigns were normal, theyd be pulling down top salaries at marketing firms all over the U.S.

What should be done to stop social medias role in spreading terrorism ideals? Is it the onus of individual companies such as YouTube or Facebook, or does the government need to step in?

Well, first, were talking about degrading their capabilities. Were never going to eliminate their capabilities. Our goal is to try to marginalize them on the most powerful of these platforms.

Obviously, San Bernardino is a massive wake-up call. The signal is that theyre now focusing on soft targets. Anyone can now be a target, and everyone feels that unease. Every single democracy has the same list of fears and concerns.

Our view is the government needs to be speaking to social media giants to make our country safer. But voluntary actions by these companies is our focus because they can do so much more (than the government) because they understand this process and theyre for-profit companies, so they can set their own rules and they have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens.

When you say they can do more than the government, what do you mean?

Social networking companies themselves are all experts in predictive behavior. They have the collective genius on collective behavior, so they need to play a creative, voluntary role in bringing together and promoting a counter narrative. Maybe they have windows that pop up when someone is interacting or navigating to a page with ISIS material on it asking them, "Are you sure you want this?" and include some facts about ISIS and terrorism.

The Internet isnt a debate forum, its a marketing tool. You have to figure out a way to present another message to the audience ISIS is targeting. Thats a bold move Im not sure independent companies will take up because they dont want to be thought of as an interventional "Big Brother." But because weve voluntarily given so much access about who we are to the social networking world, very often theyre in a better position to know where someone is at rather than a parent or the government.

Youve said that Twitter remains the online marketing weapon of choice for terrorists and extremists, while Facebook has led the way in removing terrorist material from its site. How do different social media platforms differ in dealing with this problem?

Facebooks business model is not interested in driving up its page views with ISIS material, and theyve made that clear in how transparent they are when we report suspicious pages or activity they respond and they make reporting something easy. Twitter has been inconsistent and, for the life of me, I dont understand why Twitter would allow itself to effectively be the terrorists tool of choice, but so far they have. YouTube is sort of still in the middle. Theres way too much information on YouTube about how to use household items to deploy in terroristic fashion, and its hard because of how big YouTube is. We know its not an easy fight. On the Russian version of Facebook and on Twitter, they tell people to prepare six or so parallel email addresses in case you get kicked off the sites. Were dealing with very sophisticated people here.

Many Islamic mosque leaders have commented publicly that incidents like San Bernardino dont reflect Islamic teachings, but should more of them be tweeting instead?

Yes. Americans get that the majority of Muslims dont hold these extremist beliefs. But the only people who can change the mindset are other Muslims.

The voices countering ISIS must come from within Islam. Not from the government, but from a community of legitimate, young American Muslims. Their youth have to hear it in the mosques, online, they need to be writing op-eds and we need to hear from them all the time, not just the day after a crisis.

ISIS message of hatred also has to be dealt with from within majority Muslim countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia leaders there have to step up and deliver unambiguous messages to their constituents. This is the challenge across the board. Most Muslims overseas know this has to be brought under control and they need to get involved with these narratives and come up with legitimate narratives to counter it. Its time for parents and teachers and educators within Muslim communities to take on this extremism, or theyre going to wake up one day and find theyve lost basic communication with their own young people.

Is there anything ordinary citizens and social media users can do to help curb this problem?

If you see something related to terrorism, say something. Report it to the social networking company, talk to parents, teachers or send it to us at Were going to take it seriously and pass it on to people who need to know about it. But moving forward, the key constituent will be the social networking companies themselves. Without them, its hopeless. With them, we have a shot.