Last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered a wide-ranging address at CSIS in Washington, DC. In addition to cybersecurity and the US-China relationship, Turnbull discussed the threat of ISIS's affinity for social media:
As ISIL uses social media for its propaganda, we must respond rapidly and persuasively with the facts. It was clear to me from my recent visit that the Iraqi Government and other anti-ISIL forces are not reacting quickly enough to contradict ISIL's online messages which have been used both to recruit new fighters and demoralise those who oppose them and we should help them with this.
ISIL claims must be mocked and disproved as soon as they are made. The cybersphere demands reactions as rapid as the kinetic battlefield. We are working with our partners in South East Asia to improve the effectiveness of our counter narrative online, and I was pleased to see heightened cooperation here in Washington between the Government and the private sector telcos, software developers, and social media platforms to that end.
Turnbull's emphasis on reacting to ISIS social media campaigns is intriguing. Turnbull talks about reacting quickly, but for the reactive, corrective strategy Turnbull has in mind, reach is a more critical issue than speed. Social media audiences are fragmented; in fact, a recent Brookings Institution paper argued that as a result of campaigns to suspend ISIS accounts on Twitter, supporter networks 'are becoming even more insular than they were to begin with'. So how can messages be effectively delivered to individuals who choose to follow pro-ISIS accounts?
Anti-ISIS organisations might sidestep this insularity and reply directly to the tweets of ISIS supporters, thus getting a chance to access their audiences, but as I've argued previously there are risks in entering into conversation with ISIS supporters, and of course this strategy cannot work if the accounts of these supporters are immediately suspended.
Perhaps a proactive, rather than reactive, social media campaign is called for. One example of the success such a campaign can deliver is in the aftermath of last October's joint US-Kurdish raid near the Iraqi town of Hawija to free prisoners of ISIS. Seventy Kurds were freed, with one American soldier killed. Following the raid, footage from a soldier's helmet-mounted camera was leaked to a Kurdish media outlet and subsequently went viral (bolstered by an accompanying social media campaign and video interviews with the freed hostages). From Javier Lesaca at Brookings:
The success of the campaign was promoted through six different Twitter accounts specializing in countering ISIS in social media. These accounts have released video of the U.S. raid against ISIS on Twitter, adding the Arabic hashtags used by ISIS in their communications. According to data provided by the Twitter analysis software Tweetbinder, the six Twitter accounts published 843 tweets in one week with the Kurdish prisoner video, reaching an audience of 711,313 Twitter users.
The rescue footage and subsequent interviews present an alternative interpretation of ISIS, and shows that material which is meaningful and engaging is more likely to be redistributed on social media and more likely to reach target audiences.
Too much focus on 'setting the record straight' might blind organisations attempting to counter the online influence of ISIS to the proactive opportunities available to them. Why emphasise swinging back over swinging first?