02/23/2015 02:24 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2015

How The Obama Administration Is Asking Tech Companies To Help Combat ISIS

WASHINGTON -- In response to the Islamic State's savvy use of social media to spread its messages and publicize its deeds, the Obama administration says it is ramping up engagement with the tech sector, approaching big-name Silicon Valley companies to ask about boosting anti-terrorism narratives from people outside of the government.

Over the last few months, the Islamic State -- the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL -- has put the Obama administration in the unenviable position of playing digital catch-up. The group's videos of executions of U.S. citizens are expertly produced and then widely disseminated on popular platforms like YouTube. By the time the U.S. government has verified the authenticity of a given video, it's already gone viral. Tech companies are left playing whack-a-mole with the accounts spreading the videos.

The Obama administration acknowledged in The New York Times last week that the government is "getting beaten" by the sheer volume of social media outreach coming from Islamic State supporters. So the government is now hoping to round up every ally it can, no matter how unlikely -- from Twitter representatives to ordinary social media users -- to help it fight back.

"Our engagement with the tech sector is intensifying because of the nature of the threat,” said a State Department official with knowledge of the efforts.

Last week, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter attended the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism. The event brought together senior officials from the United Nations, as well as private-sector and civil society representatives like Global Survivors Network and the Anti-Defamation League, to put together an agenda to counter extremism.

The Obama administration is also in talks with tech companies how those companies can help promote anti-terrorism narratives from non-governmental actors who are, as the official put it, "committed to taking on the ideological fight."

The State official outlined a couple of areas where the agency is seeking help from tech companies. "One question we have for them, and this is a continuing conversation, is about what their terms of use allow and don't allow," the official said. "If you talk to them, a lot of them have actually been very aggressive in taking down content that they believe violates their terms of use, so that's one thread of activity."

The Obama administration has long battled the Islamic State with its own social-networking efforts, such as the "Think Again Turn Away" campaign launched by the State Department in 2013. But the effectiveness of its methods have been questioned. Think Again Turn Away has received criticism for giving jihadists a platform to spat with the U.S. government on Twitter on issues like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department terrorism official, told the NYT last week that a small State agency called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), established in 2011 to coordinate counter-messaging, "was never taken seriously" after the first year or two, and got little support from higher-ups.

The State Department hasn't given up on this strategy, however. The CSCC is planning to coordinate more than 350 State Department Twitter accounts, along with accounts operated by the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security and foreign allies, in a move to combat Islamic State messaging online, The New York Times reports.

The State official acknowledged to The Huffington Post that "the United States government has limited credibility when it comes to messaging." He pointed to religious leaders, entrepreneurs and people who have lost family members to violence as examples of non-government voices who can offer compelling anti-terrorism messages. Other possible allies, he said, include human rights activists, former extremists and even comedians.

"They need help telling the story and that's where the tech sector can come in, helping them curate and distribute content [and] leverage their platforms," the official said. He later added that it "would be great" if some of these campaigns were to go viral.

But that will require cooperation from tech companies that remain deeply skeptical of collaborating directly with the Obama administration in the wake of disclosures of government surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

It's clear that tech companies are already using tools to counter hate speech. Twitter, which has come under fire for how it responds to abuse on its platform -- particularly harassment of women -- has partnered with a number of groups to work on various "counter-speech" campaigns. But it's not clear to what extent the company will extend those efforts to assist the Obama administration in its goals.

A Twitter spokesman said that the company has "plan[s] to participate in the State Department's effort" but will do so by assisting third-party NGOs, including the Anti-Defamation League in the U.S. and the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism in France.

He confirmed that four members of Twitter attended the White House summit last week, including Colin Crowell, vice president of global public policy; Maryam Mujica, who manages Twitter's public policy team; and Will Carty, a Twitter lobbyist.

Patricia Cartes, head of global trust and safety outreach at Twitter, told HuffPost that the company has expanded partnerships related to "counter-speech" over the last year. Twitter has helped NGOs do research and promoted some of their tweets, and has trained some volunteers and activists on reporting mechanisms and policies.

"You tend to have 10 percent of people on the extremes of any ideology, and those are nearly impossible to influence," Cartes said. "However, you do have the 80 percent of people in the middle" who can be influenced through education, she added.

Jared Cohen, a former State Department policy planning staffer and the founder of the Google Ideas think tank, also attended the White House summit. A Google spokesperson told HuffPost that "exploring counter-narratives is something that Google Ideas has been working on for a long time." Google declined to provide additional comment on potential discussions with the State Department.

In April 2012, Google Ideas launched Against Violent Extremism, an online network that aims to provide a platform for former violent extremists and victims to connect. Google's YouTube has also hosted "Abdullah-x," a cartoon that features a Muslim spreading anti-jihadi messages. This might seem insufficient to counter the wildfire-like spread of the Islamic State's beheading videos, but counter-speech is only one part of Google's anti-terrorism efforts.

Rachel Whetstone, senior vice president of communications and public policy at Google, said in a speech earlier this month to the Bavarian parliament in Munich that Google automatically terminates the account of any terror group and allows law enforcement to flag videos containing terrorist content.

"All of us have been horrified by ISIS and their use of the media to spread propaganda," she said.



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