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To effectively counter ISIS online, we need a narrative

To effectively counter ISIS online, we need a narrative

Back in April, Fergus Hanson highlighted the glaring need for a global response to ISIS in the cyber domain, and welcomed the announcement of an $18 million initiative to counter extremist propaganda online from the Australian Government.

Last month Defence Minister Kevin Andrews announced the launch of a new Twitter account, @Fight_DAESH, which seeks out misleading tweets from ISIS and ISIS sympathisers and corrects them. 'Defence has established an online capability that monitors Daesh military propaganda, identifies false posts and responds with factual information to counter this narrative on Twitter', Andrews told the Herald Sun

Thus far the account has done precisely this. However, after one operator behind the account gave Buzzfeed Australia reporter Mark Di Stefano background (without first asking to be off the record), we now have an inkling of the ADF's tactical approach.

According to the ADF account user interviewed by Di Stefano, @fight_DAESH has no dedicated staff and is an attempt to 'prove the concept'. When asked about potentially posting memes on the account, the user admitted the approach was, for the time being, very deliberate and constrained. 'Starting with words. Will likely attempt info graphics. Doubt we'll get into memes as others are doing that better than us.'

At this point the user referred to the UAE's @sawabcenter and the US Department of State's @ThinkAgain_DOS. 'We're filling a niche no one else was doing in an official attributed capacity.' [fold]

The niche the ADF user refers to is a reactionary one; @fight_DAESH is countering a narrative but isn't providing one of its own. While the UAE and the Department of State might be better at this kind of social media presence, this isn't to say either that they are 'winning' or that they are reaching the kind of Australian audiences that the ADF and other Australian institutions are uniquely positioned to access. The UK's @UKAgainstISIL is a good example of a state-run anti-ISIS account with a more domestic focus.

As Twitter and other social media outlets are limited in their efforts to playing whack-a-mole by deleting ISIS accounts as they crop up, the specific tactic of entering into a conversation and disagreeing with Twitter users shortly before they are whacked makes little sense. Social media audiences are inherently self-selected fragments, but responding to another account's tweet means that account's audience may see your tweet as well. However, if an account @fight_DAESH responds to is deleted, any chance of broadcasting the counter-narrative to the deleted account's readership is lost.

These corrective responses would be far more viable on networks where it was difficult or impossible to ban individual participants. On Twitter, individual hash tags may be an example of this kind of network, as Twitter reportedly does not block hash tags and even if it did, accounts run by ISIS supporters are known to hijack hash tags associated with unrelated events or issues. A recent tweet from @fight_DAESH with a hash tag referencing an ISIS propaganda video is a good example of engaging on such a network (albeit a week or so too late in this instance). Posting tweets with hash tags used by ISIS supporters does, however, mean the unavoidable publicising of those hash tags, which may lead @fight_DAESH's immediate followers to ISIS material.

It's one thing to correct content and another entirely to create it, but without doing the latter it's difficult to envision the posts of @fight_DAESH having the traction or the effectiveness enjoyed by other prominent state-run or grassroots anti-ISIS accounts.

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