The Australian Defence Force’s latest initiative in the war on Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh), a Twitter account disputing “Daesh lies”, builds on lessons from the problems encountered by earlier attempts at countering IS propaganda — but nobody really knows if it will work.
The @Fight_DAESH account, which became the object of unwanted attention when one of its operators contacted a BuzzFeed journalist via private message, aims to disprove incorrect claims made by IS sympathisers online.
Is it all just a show to make the government look tough? A madcap experiment bound to fail? Well, no — but there are still plenty of uncertainties surrounding such an approach.
The Twitter account @Fight_DAESH will not enter into debate with individual IS accounts, according to Defence — a strategy undertaken by a previous iteration of the American State Department’s Think Again, Turn Away program.
The original’s argumentative approach was panned by the media. Mother Jones reported it as an embarrassing example of the world’s most powerful government “trolling” people over the internet, while Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi behaviour online, described it as giving jihadists “a stage to voice their arguments”, allowing them to reach a wider audience.
Since then, the State Department has reoriented its efforts towards being more factual and testimonial, highlighting IS hypocrisy, emphasising accounts of its defectors and documenting its losses on the battlefield, according to Rashad Hussain, the man in charge of the change.
The Australian account, which “has been developed and implemented in co-ordination with international partners and Australian government agencies”, appears to build on the State Department’s experience, though its approach focuses more on directly disputing incorrect claims. Stating that “Daesh has built a false narrative, partly by using false information on social media”, a Defence spokesperson told Crikey sister site The Mandarin: “@Fight_DAESH identifies social media posts, currently on Twitter only, by Daesh/ISIL members, supporters or affiliates that utilise disinformation to enhance the false understanding of the group’s efforts in Iraq.
“The misinformation is analysed against other open source information using available online tools to identify specific falsehoods than can be addressed and the propaganda directly refuted. An example includes misrepresenting old images or videos portrayed as current events or the selective use of information to create false perception.”
A Mark Di Stefano interview with the person behind the account on BuzzFeed did not portray the initiative in the most competent light (the tweeter seemed to believe DMing a journalist out of the blue and answering his questions was an off-the-record conversation). It is currently attempting to “prove viability” — processes since the BuzzFeed story have since been “reviewed”, says Defence. It continues to tweet infrequently.
While Professor Greg Barton, of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, acknowledges the potential issues with the ADF’s approach, he thinks it’s still a good and relatively low-risk option. “It’s not necessarily an answer in itself, but it’s part of the answer,” he told The Mandarin.
The entire field of countering violent extremism — often referred to as CVE — is still in its relative infancy, Barton says, meaning it’s not really known how well many proposed interventions will work.
No doubt it’s a cheaper and safer approach than many of the other tactics governments have at their disposal to tackle terrorism. Although it seems unlikely those susceptible to IS messaging will trust the Australian government, the hope is that it will be enough to disrupt the narratives created by the terrorist group, at very least perhaps prompting sympathisers to view IS propaganda in a more critical fashion.
Targeting facts is a very deliberate tactic. A report by Wikistrat argues that IS messaging comprises four elements: religious obligation, political grievance, a sense of adventure targeting hot-headed young men and the perception that IS is winning. While Western governments will have little success in trying to address the first three, which are highly subjective, “ISIS’s claim that the group is defeating its opponents on the battlefield is not a simple matter of opinion” and is open to dispute on factual grounds.
Presenting credible fact-checks on IS claims in response to events — something government agencies may struggle to do in a timely fashion — could even help minimise the occurrence of mainstream media outlets unwittingly repeating incorrect claims that play into IS propaganda designed to make the group appear strong, such as when it claimed to have seized the city of Derna in Libya (it hadn’t), or when it claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in Tunisia carried out by an al-Qaeda affiliate.
“The basic principle is that they’ve had it to themselves for a long time with no competition,” Barton said. “It stands to reason that at the very least we want to put some alternative views out there, so if someone is looking for this stuff there will be another view.”
Complicating matters is the fact that it’s extremely difficult to evaluate success the success of counter-propaganda. Former potential jihadists are unlikely to tell the government they had been planning to join the fight until the seeds of doubt were planted by official messaging.
“It’s not going to do everything,” Barton said, “but it’s silly to turn around and say that because you can’t do everything you should do nothing.”