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U.S. Enlists College Students to Fight ISIS Online

Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism encourages colleges students to combat extremism and hate speech online.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Hoda Muthana’s spiritual awakening happened three years before the 20-year-old American boarded a plane for Turkey in November, 2014, to join ISIS.

At 17, the quiet girl from a conservative household in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, began distancing herself from the local Muslim community and her friends. She watched hours of scholar lectures on Islam on YouTube, created an alter-ego on Twitter and gained thousands of followers.

On the pretense of going to Atlanta for a college field trip, Muthana boarded a flight to Turkey and made her way to Syria. She married a foreign fighter and continued to propagate ISIS’s message online from her new home in Raqqa — including one post earlier this year that incited violence.

“Veterans, Patriot, Memorial etc Day parades … go on drive by’s + spill all of their blood or rent a big truck n drive all over them. Kill them.”

Muthana’s story, reported by BuzzFeed and recounted in a new report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, “ISIS in America,” documents an alarming but familiar pattern in the rise of homegrown radicalism and the role of online social networks as a “radicalization echo chamber.”

To counter the Islamic State’s powerful online propaganda operation, the Obama administration has been ramping up efforts, including funding one little-known initiative that encourages college students to create anti-terrorism campaigns to share on sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The competition challenges millennials to create digital campaigns to counter violent extremism.

The program, called Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism, is a partnership between the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security, Facebook and EdVenture Partners, a third-party consulting firm that runs the operation domestically and abroad. It is a competition that challenges millennials to create social or digital campaigns to counter violent extremism and hate speech.

Its goal is to use the very social media platforms where extremist groups like the Islamic State recruit new members to offer a different perspective. The organizers hope that the digitally savvy college students taking part in the Peer to Peer program can employ the same digital tricks of the trade to reach those at risk of being seduced by the camaraderie or sense of adventure or purpose that groups like ISIS promise.

“The problem and the issue I’m concerned with the most is the recruitment and radicalization of young people, specifically in the United States, into the violent [terrorist groups],” said George Selim, director for the Office for Community Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security. “Young people are such a credible voice on this issue.”

The urgency of such an initiative can hardly be overstated. One of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack that left 14 people dead and 21 others injured posted a pledge of allegiance to ISIS on Facebook around the time the rampage began. FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the couple were discussing jihad and martyrdom online before they became engaged and married.

The issue of terrorism is dominating the 2016 presidential race, with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton saying the nation’s technology companies need to do more to “deprive jihadists of virtual territory” online. Lawmakers resurrected a bill that would require tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to report online terrorist activity following the mass shooting in San Bernardino.

The George Washington University report identifies Twitter as the platform of choice for ISIS propagandists.

That’s easier said than done, particularly for Twitter, which the George Washington University report identified as the platform of choice for ISIS propagandists. Removing one account simply spurs the creation of another to take its place in an endless game of digital whack-a-mole. Completely stamping out terrorist accounts is nearly impossible given how quick and easy it is to sign up on these platforms.

Facebook and Twitter don’t go proactively searching for this kind of content, either. Instead, they wait until it is reported by another user — though both companies say they respond aggressively once they’re alerted to a threat or to a user promoting terrorism. Facebook, for example, will look for associated accounts and inappropriate content related to a flagged account, but only after it has already been reported.

These “wait and react” strategies frustrate those who demand more proactive intervention, just as social networks deal with child pornography. A petition asking Facebook to proactively stifle terrorist-like content has amassed more than 145,000 signatures.

The Peer to Peer initiative provides Facebook with a middle ground for dealing with terror-related content online, one that falls somewhere between exerting heavy-handed censorship of its 1.5 billion users and waiting for people to report a problem.

Counter Programming

“You can’t base a whole religion on a few bad seeds.”

This was the mindset that inspired Julie Himelstein, a senior at the University of Maryland, to get involved in Peer to Peer almost one year ago. Her project, Islam Rooted, was a multi-part documentary to “challenge misconceptions about Islam’s relationship with Western Education.” Himelstein, a 23-year-old Baltimore native, said she grew up with a diverse group of friends, many of whom were Muslim, and was sick of the stereotypes projected on the religion.

“When I hear about all these extremist actions and groups on an international level, it leaves me distraught because I know so many amazing people in the Muslim community,” she said. “I wanted to get this message out.”

This was also the motivation of Hagar Ittia, a 29-year-old graduate student at Maryland who was not part of Himelstein’s seven-person team, but was a subject in the documentary to share her experience as a Muslim American.

“The dominant image of Muslims in the American psyche is very skewed.”

“The dominant image of Muslims in the American psyche is very skewed,” Ittia explained. Two tropes of Muslim Americans dominate: The radicalized, anti-American Muslim, and the Muslim who has completely rejected the Middle East and has fully embraced Western ideals. “I don’t feel like either one of them is very representative of the majority of Muslims in America, and it’s certainly not representative of me.”

“Participating in this documentary allowed me to diversify the conversation a little bit,” she added.

Over the course of 15 weeks, competing student groups from the program generate anti-terrorism campaigns either online or offline. Organizers call the campaigns “counter-speech,” designed to challenge hate speech and extremism by offering another perspective. The campaigns range from thoughtful to comical to borderline offensive.

Projects ran the gamut: 52Jumaa, a mobile app designed for young Muslims to promote positive personal and spiritual growth; a series of short video documentaries; a website called “Funny Militant,” where people could submit memes and cartoons “delegitimizing and discrediting ISIS.”

“The model here,” said Selim, “is to let a thousand flowers bloom.”

 The student group from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, used black-and-white photos for its campaign to humanize and create dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim students.
The student group from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, used black-and-white photos for its campaign to humanize and create dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim students.
EdVenture Partners

As part of the program, Facebook holds workshops to show students how best to use its platform to amplify their campaigns and how to take advantage of the insights it provides to site creators to determine which posts resonate with the sought-after demographic. The format of the message matters — generally, photos get shared more quickly than verbose posts. Constructive posts that encourage people to think, rather than those that launch into attacks, tend to gain wider circulation. Even the speaker matters.

“Counter-speech is a powerful tool for amplifying those messages and driving social progress,” said Facebook global policy chief Monika Bickert, citing similar efforts to combat bullying or protest the 2014 kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram. “When it comes to religious extremism, it’s no different. Facebook can be a great place to share what’s in the news, critically discuss it and make sure people ask questions about what they’ve seen.”

“Facebook can be a great place to share what’s in the news, critically discuss it and make sure people ask questions about what they’ve seen.”

What Facebook won’t do is game the system. The company is adamant that it doesn’t use its News Feed algorithm to help boost any anti-terrorism material. Any success the teams have happens organically. “We are not the creators of speech,” Bickert said. “We are not pushing content towards people.”

The idea for Peer to Peer started with a phone call in October 2014 from Selim, who at the time was director of community partnerships for the White House National Security Council. He wanted to reach millennials on digital platforms, but recognized traditional government approaches wouldn’t fly. So he contacted EdVenture CEO Tony Sgro, who had worked with the FBI and Homeland Security on previous projects.

Rather than tap marketing types to craft campaigns, the group wanted to create something that the audience would find authentic. “You could get an ad agency or a public relations firm to come up with the campaign, but you’re basically getting a Madison Avenue perspective. We don’t want Madison Avenue here,” Sgro said. “We want youthful, raw, credible, authentic, social media strategies. The government can’t do that.”

The program’s organizers object to characterizing it as a different kind of propaganda. They emphasize that the students pick their own projects and the government has no say over the material. Dr. Nick Joyce, a Maryland professor who advised Himelstein’s team, described the U.S. government’s involvement as “minimal” — primarily providing the prompt and a little funding.

“I don’t think at any point they felt like government shills, because the project was theirs,” he said.

The U.S. government spent a modest $1 million to fund the program in 2015; it’s wrapping up its second session with 45 teams competing, 20 of those at international schools, in places like Morocco and Kazakhstan.

Each student team receives $2,000 to use on its campaign provided by agencies like the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The winning team at the end of each semester is then awarded a trip — fully funded by Facebook — to show off its campaign to officials in Washington, D.C.

One group turned its $2,000 into almost 200,000 Facebook and Twitter impressions.

In the first half of 2015, students from Missouri State University took the top prize for their campaign, called One95, intended to educate people about violent extremism. It included a website, multiple testimonial videos and a tweet-a-thon. In total, the group turned its $2,000 into almost 200,000 Facebook and Twitter impressions alone and led to the launch of the One95 Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism held this fall at the United Nations in New York.

“If you calculate the amount of positive media impressions that all the schools have generated … the price we’re paying is minuscule,” explained Selim. “It’s a home run of an investment.”

Not every project has that kind of influence, of course. The Maryland team said that fewer than 50 people saw their documentary at the group’s screening. But that doesn’t mean it was a waste of effort.

“There are lots of people who might classify as lone wolf terrorists, who are disaffected and looking for a narrative to buy into,” said Joyce. “No single project is going to save the world or end terrorism. But these individual projects might have some minor effects along the way that accumulate into something greater.”

Added Himelstein: “All it takes is one really, really great idea to make this so successful that it could make a huge change in the bigger picture.”

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