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Is IS Beginning to Lose the Social Media War?

Interview clip with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel
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Interview clip with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel, Sept. 25, 2015.

A State Department official says there has been a “sharp decline” in the volume of Islamic State messages on social media in the last few months.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel says he thinks the “scales are shifting” and the amount of counter messaging is beginning to outweigh the number of social media messages from Islamic State around the world.

Islamic State (IS) has been extremely effective in using social media. While most people have read about or seen images of beheadings and immolations on social media, they may be less familiar with the thousands and thousands of postings containing pro-IS propaganda promoting its state-like activities and interpretation of Islam.

And to date, the U.S. and other countries have not been every effective in out-messaging IS. A June article in the New York Times proclaims that IS “is winning the social media war.” The article cites an internal State Department assessment.

“Laughable,” Senator Cory Booker called anti-IS messaging efforts last May. “Three retweets. Two retweets…”

But Stengel says that lawmakers like Booker are completely missing the huge volume of anti-IS messaging that goes out in Arabic.

“95 percent of ISIL messaging is in Arabic. I am not so sure how many of our men and women in Congress read social media in Arabic. They are looking at the handful of English social media that we do,” he told VOA State Department Correspondent Pam Dockins on Friday.

Network of networks

Stengel heads up the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) at the State Department, which while initially established to counter al-Qaida, has now become a full time anti-IS messaging machine.

He says that CSCC does not view the effort as American versus IS or ISIL messaging. “That isn’t the ball game. It’s the whole rest of the Islamic world versus ISIL so we want to create a network of networks, of different hubs.”

The first CSCC network began operations in July, a joint project of the U.S. and United Arab Emirates. Located in Abu Dhabi, the Sawab Center quickly counters IS propaganda messages.

Stengel says the center now has more than 10,000 followers.

There are also rapid messaging centers in Jordan and Egypt – and Stengel says new ones will be announced Tuesday at a Countering Violent Extremism Summit during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York.

“As more and more people and more and more Muslims around the world become repulsed by what ISIL is doing, you will see the flow of media increasing until it completely drowns out their messages,” he said.

How do you measure success?

Stengel says that counter IS messaging is assessed pretty much like a typical media campaign, by number of followers, how long readers stay on line, what they look at next.

The main aim is to grab market share.

For example, Sawab will be running a new disinformation campaign next week during the UNGA meeting. Called the defectors’ campaign, it will use direct testimony “from dozens and dozens of young men and women who have come back from Iraq and Syria and said, ‘The caliphate is a myth. I was abused there. They’re not religious. They’re venal and money grubbing,’” says Stengel.

But any correlation between counter messaging and the flow of foreign fighters is a false one, he says.

“Is messaging important to their [IS] brand? Yes. Is a Tweet going to take a nice young man who’s living in Tunisia and make him decide to go fight in Iraq and Syria? I don’t think so,” Stengel said.

What does convince young men and women to fight for IS, according to Stengel is not so much social media in general but highly focused social media such as e mail and phone calls – personal contact. Combating that, he says, is the job of intelligence services and law enforcement.

Watch the full interview on VOA's YouTube channel.