Compared to defeating the physical presence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, an Internet expert says, a digital counterinsurgency is an easier goal to reach.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, isn’t as prevalent on the Internet as many believe, an expert on digital media says, and the United States has the technological capacity to destroy the terror group’s online recruiting efforts.
Compared to defeating the physical presence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he says, the digital counterinsurgency is an easier challenge to meet and requires little risk.
Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued these points during a lecture at Vanderbilt University earlier this month.
As the first terrorist group to occupy both physical and digital territory, ISIS manipulates an online presence to communicate its message and recruit foreign fighters.
Although ISIS is skilled at marketing on the Web, the armed force isn’t technologically savvy, Cohen said. The U.S. should manipulate this weakness as it forms a strategy to take down the terrorists online, he said.
“It’s more complex,” Cohen said of ISIS’s digital front, adding:
It’s less understood. In many respects, it’s bigger. But it’s probably the aspect of the challenge that we have an easier job defeating.
Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal that she agrees with Cohen and underscored the necessity of stopping the brutal Islamist terrorists online.
“Reducing the potency of ISIS’ poisonous Internet propaganda is critically important for stemming the flow of foreign recruits,” Dale said.
Cohen suggested that despite the terrorist group’s comprehensive social media presence, it’s realistic for the U.S.to destroy it digitally. Specifically, he argued that the objective should be to marginalize the terrorists and push them to the periphery of the Internet.
Cohen advocated a three-point plan. First, he proposes the U.S. cut off the nexuses of influence enjoyed by ISIS. This means using intelligence to discover which digital media accounts belong to members of ISIS and following the subpoena process to get the accounts suspended.
The second facet of Cohen’s plan calls for reducing the terrorist group’s digital activity by diverting potential recruits away from it online.
One way to do this, he said, is by pushing a counter-narrative, similar to targeted online advertising. When a potential recruit uses specific search terms on Google such as “how to join ISIS,” the U.S. can target ads on search engines to convince the prospect not to sign up.
The more effective way to do this, Cohen argues, is by injecting risk. Although it is difficult to change the mind of an extremist who wants to join ISIS, it is easier to scare him or her into submission. Search engines, for instance, can plant ads showing stories of arrests of individuals who were caught trying to travel to Iraq or Syria to commit violent jihad.
The message of the U.S. on the Internet and in the media, Dale added, should be clear: “This is what happens to you if you join ISIS.”
She said: “ISIS propagandists portray the Islamic State as paradise. In reality, it is hell on earth.”
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