Armed with Data in the War on Terror


How the U.S. and its Partners are Combating Extremist Propaganda with Counter-Terrorism Messaging

Emma Beck -By Emma Beck, Account Executive, LEVICK

From Paris to Brussels, and now somewhere in the murky waters off the Egyptian shores, we, more than ever, feel the heightened fears of violent extremism.

Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the escalation of terror regimes, and the metamorphosis of extremists’ despotic pursuits. We have watched the rise of ISIS, and have grappled with its success in feeding from the crisis of identity infiltrating pockets of the Muslim world. As the U.S. refines its messaging strategies to curb radicalization, it remains critical that it dive into the roots of terrorists’ ideologies, if only to cut the source sustaining their appeal.

Since January 2016, the U.S. State Department has begun localizing its counter-terrorism messaging among areas vulnerable to ISIS’s stronghold. Working alongside its network of on-the-ground, non-governmental partners, the approach combines informational analysis to understand not only who to reach, but how to do so effectively. Armed with data, the U.S. and its partners can strategically influence the population segment ISIS targets. It can grasp the circumstances specific to the group’s development, and establish credibility to impart a message of hope among those most susceptible to the terror group’s propaganda.

This is not the government’s fight alone. It will take a village—from technology and big data agencies, to media startups and advocacy organizations—to bridge the expertise needed to implement a holistic terrorism prevention response. Already, Google UK embeds counter-narrative links in pro-terrorism searches (i.e. “join ISIS”). Twitter has partnered with NGOs to activate credible non-government voices to rally around non-extremist calls. Technology provides a means; data serves the golden weapon to customize messaging, all while making the content delivery relevant to the audiences responders aim to effect.

With an eye to countering ISIS, here’s what the use of data to develop comprehensive communications can do:

  • Inform who we are—and who we aren’t—targeting

ISIS preys on the angst of the spiritually aimless to allure those captured by a radical framework of an alternative worldview. The extent of nationalities ISIS attracts reflects in the languages of their content. ISIS releases 82 percent of its material in Arabic; 13 percent in Russian; and five to six percent in English or French. Countering ISIS’s appeal, therefore, requires nuanced content that adheres to the culture and background behind the language they deliver their communication in. 

  • Guide digital targeting

The Internet offers ISIS a centralizing force to fuel a terror brand built from a virtual repository of global ambassadors. To influence our identified audience, counter-messaging must also play in this field.

According to a Brookings Institution survey, 62 percent of Arab youth use WhatsApp; 55 percent check Facebook daily; 33 percent watch YouTube videos; and 28 percent consume content via Twitter and Instagram. Moreover, Brookings reports that 69 percent of this population uses an Android, 30 percent uses an iPhone and 1 percent uses a Blackberry. Among documented ISIS supporters, users generally tweet 7.3 times a day and are more active than the “typical” Twitter user. The understanding of their movements, coupled with which technology and platforms they are active on, gives those pushing out counter-messaging an eye into where it remains critical to maintain a presence.

  • Identify the appropriate on- and offline messengers

According to the findings of a recent survey of 200 million Middle Eastern millennials:

  • Only 15 percent of Arab youth believe ISIS will succeed;
  • The majority feel religion plays too big a role in the Middle East and they want more done to improve personal freedoms and human rights;
  • They echo the understanding we already hold: lack of jobs and opportunities represent the primary drivers behind ISIS’s success.

This segment represents the Arab youth who aren’t seduced by ISIS yet understand why ISIS might appeal to them. These reflect powerful voices who can deliver credible anti-terrorism messaging. ISIS defectors can also serve as a voice, as evidenced by the recent success of a U.S. campaign featuring their testimonies. Who else can we leverage to build an international network of positive messengers? How can we use data to get into the minds and hearts of Arab youth lured by the terrorist snare?

 The offline space matters too. Localizing the narrative takes into account what a mother tells her children, the imam delivers to his congregants, and the teacher instructs her students. Changing this dialogue takes time, but it begins by identifying local influencers—town clerics and spiritual leaders—who can steer conversations to begin changing the narrative from the ground on up. How can responders use data to put a counter-narrative into the hands of local figures and, tapping into our network of on-the-ground partners, train them to deliver in a manner than resonates?

To date, ISIS has recruited one billion Muslims worldwide. The quest extends not only to those prepared to fight at the frontline, but to lawyers, architects, workers and women who, together, can build the envisioned Islamic State. This is the elusive cohort responders must target. Data—whether in the form of tracking website referrals or monitoring keywords used—allows responders a mechanism to flag indications of radicalization susceptibility.

Uniting government and non-governmental allies, we can pool personnel committed to the task, and bring to the table innovative visions to move the needle in the messaging war against terrorism. In light of the Paris and Brussels attacks, and amidst the speculation surrounding EgyptAir’s disappearance, the urgency to defeat radicalization remains ever-growing. A counter-messaging response that blends data to inform tactics will certainly not deliver a quick fix; but it’s a first and critical, targeted step in a long battle ahead.

About the Author: Emma Beck is an account executive at LEVICK, a global strategic communications agency. 


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