The Hyperlinks of Hybrid Warfare: Social Media Meets Extremism

A man looks at the Twitter Inc. page on a mobile device whilst standing against an illuminated wall bearing Twitter Inc.s log
A man looks at the Twitter Inc. page on a mobile device whilst standing against an illuminated wall bearing Twitter Inc.s logo in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. Twitter Inc. may be preparing to raise its character limit for tweets to the thousands from the current 140, a person with knowledge of the matter said. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This piece is co-written by Leon G. Shahabian and Tara Sonenshine

Finally, the United States is coming to terms with a central reality about terrorism: much of it happens on smart phones, laptops and other screens around the world where those who seek to perpetuate violence prey on would-be terrorists. Regardless of where you stand on the Apple versus FBI argument over access to the cell phone of the Bernardino shooter, it is a reminder that information matters when you are fighting radical Islamist terrorism, or countering violent extremism, or whatever euphemism one uses to describe threats to our security and way of life.

In recent testimony to the House Appropriations subcommittee, Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at the uptick in federal cyber activities aimed at ISIS and other radical groups who wage online campaigns to recruit terrorists and coordinate attacks. The surge of network-based military operations is another sign that U.S. officials understand how much happens through the Internet, and how non-kinetic radicalization can lead to kinetic attacks in this age of hybrid warfare.

But it is not enough for a government to engage on social media. It has to be clear why it is using social media and what grand narrative social media is supporting. This Administration obsessively uses online communications with an affinity to tweet away troubles. But online communication is a tactic, not a strategy. We cannot, reflexively, turn to social media simply because the adherents of extremism engage in that arena.

ISIS propaganda leverages social media to get out messages, not because the Internet is hip or cool or reaches young people, but because it is one dissemination tool available to them, at low cost, and low risk of being physically attacked. ISIS has a storyline, and given the opportunity, they would use traditional media like radio, satellite television, and other platforms to spread their messages. In fact, much of the ISIS propaganda is found not just in the tweets and social media posts, but in the hyperlinks embedded in violent messages.

Yes, content is king, and distribution of content is King Kong. But dissemination without strong content will fail -- especially overseas where you need strong local content and context. Terrorists have become sophisticated in the use of the Internet beyond simply using it as a vehicle to communicate. They have moved to advanced video production aimed at linking the viewer to longer form content that can, in a more detailed, visual, and alluring way, make their case for Utopian adventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other dangerous places.

Instead of tweeting back at violent extremists, or attempting to disrupt their online activities altogether (a risky strategy given the potential for disrupting non-violent Internet activity), federal dollars should fund counter links that provide users with videos and films that challenge the terrorist narrative through realistic portrayals of citizens defying the radical path and succeeding in life with alternative ways of legitimate commerce, education, and social activity. We need more local stories with local context. Then we can turn to social media to push those stories out.

Video is a powerful tool for social discourse. If you embed social media with links to television programs, films, documentaries, soap operas and other multimedia products that can be attached to e-mails, tweets, blogs, and posts, you get impact. Highly produced, visually appealing, and locally generated content, produced outside the government, can often be the most convincing media. What government can do is to support those endeavors with real dollars. Not only is there experiential data to support the notion that video changes hearts and minds, there are viewer metrics and impact studies to prove the point.

Links are part of the chain of communications in the modern age. To be truly effective in countering violent extremism, we have to be linked in, and logged on, to what is convincing citizens to take the wrong road to peace and prosperity.

Leon G. Shahabian is president of Layalina Productions, a nonprofit organization, and an award-winning filmmaker. Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and currently lectures at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.