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US, Private Sector Join Forces in Anti-IS Social Media Project


FILE - Captives in orange jumpsuits — purported to be Egyptian Christians —kneel in front of armed Islamic State militants along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media, Feb. 15, 2015.

FILE - Captives in orange jumpsuits — purported to be Egyptian Christians —kneel in front of armed Islamic State militants along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media, Feb. 15, 2015.

The United States is working with partners in the private sector on a program to combat the Islamic State group's extremist message on social media and the internet.

Despite military defeats across Iraq and Syria, IS continues to expand its online presence, using the web to recruit members and spread its violent ideology, especially through the encrypted app Telegram. U.S. officials have tried varying strategies to counter that message, with admittedly mixed results.

One of the Obama administration's latest approaches, initiated by an affiliate of Google, seeks to disrupt IS online recruiting efforts by targeted advertising algorithms and the use of YouTube's video platform to dissuade people from enlisting with IS.

Some details of the pilot program were discussed this week during a meeting at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The program, to officially launch later this month, will place advertisements on computer users' screens when certain keywords are searched. The goal is to target those who have already developed an interest in online content disseminated by IS, experts said. The ads will present the voices of influential people countering Islamic State's message.

FILE - In this image posted on a militant social media account by the Al-Baraka division of the Islamic State group Feb. 24, 2015, a fighter fires a heavy weapon mounted on the back of a pickup truck during fighting in Tal Tamr, Syria.

FILE - In this image posted on a militant social media account by the Al-Baraka division of the Islamic State group Feb. 24, 2015, a fighter fires a heavy weapon mounted on the back of a pickup truck during fighting in Tal Tamr, Syria.

"Citizen journalists, imams and defectors are credible voices that can answer questions that IS is raising," said Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, a Google-owned company spearheading the project.

Countering IS messages

The goal is to present a targeted audience with a counter-message for each message IS produces online, developers say.

"We take [anti-IS] online content and synthesize it into a more coherent narrative," said Ross Frenett, director of Moonshot CVE, a tech startup involved in the new program that specializes in countering violent extremism.

U.S. government officials say the effort shows the importance of involving the private sector in the counter-messaging campaign against IS and other extremist groups.

"There is a tremendous overlap interest between the U.S. government and tech companies," said Richard Stengel, the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Twitter recently announced it has suspended more than 360,000 of its users' accounts during the past year because they were associated with terrorist groups or messages.

With IS moving to encrypted social media platforms such as Telegram, U.S. officials say it is important for technology companies to refine their strategy for detecting those users who advocate extremism.

FILE - A five-minute video from the Islamic State group purports to show militants destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. It was released Feb. 26, 2015.

FILE - A five-minute video from the Islamic State group purports to show militants destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. It was released Feb. 26, 2015.

"The method that Jigsaw is pioneering is particularly useful because it is competing [with IS] in this very narrow, targeted space," Stengel said.

Questionable results

The U.S. initiative echoes efforts in Europe, where many countries are marshaling public and private resources to oppose IS online.

"There are quiet pools of researchers and pundits who work on the subject, and European governments have moved toward this direction, and it is in the interest of U.S. government to work with them in terms of tackling issues they are facing, without reinventing the wheel," said Marie Lamensch, who focuses on IS social media strategies as a senior researcher at the Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies in Montreal.

The new public/private anti-IS project grew out of the State Department's establishment of a Global Engagement Center earlier this year to combat Islamic State's "violent extremist messaging." That shifted some of the focus away from government-led efforts to counter IS and placed greater emphasis on working with communities and local organizations. The goal was to find and amplify voices that might better resonate with young people seen to be vulnerable to IS propaganda.

U.S. officials admitted last month that they are not sure the programs are making headway against IS online, and said the IS social-media presence continues to thrive.

"This arguably is the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face," George Selim, director of the office for community partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security, said in July.

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