Turning inner space into outer space

September 6, 2014

The battle for hearts and minds on social media has already begun

A political science professor at Thompson Rivers University called for a “war of ideas” during a forum last week looking at how an international terrorist organization managed to recruit a former student of the Kamloops institution.

Unfortunately, Derek Cook had few answers and managed to raise some wrong questions.

Social media was seen as a culprit by Cook and others who took part in the gathering on Thursday. The interconnectivity created by the Internet has brought about amazing things, but also terrible things.

It has helped bring together like-minded people from around the world, whether their interests are stamp collecting or barbaric acts of cruelty.

Groups such as Islamic State have used that connectivity to recruit new members, and persuade them to take part in battles in Syria and Iraq. They aim to carve out a new nation made up only of people who adhere to their specific brand of religion.

Cook says young men steered in that direction are being “conned,” and that it is up to the media and others to show them a different path.

“It has to be a fight about belief systems.”

Cook appeared to be unaware, though, that the battle has already begun. And there’s a lot more to it than the satire that he said he has seen.

For example, the U.S. State Department is turning the tables on Islamic State with a video on YouTube that aims to turn off potential recruits with scenes of decapitated heads, crucified corpses and public executions.

A voiceover in Arabic mocks IS recruiters by suggesting you can learn skills such as blowing up mosques, setting off suicide bombs and “crucifying and executing Muslims.”

It’s part of the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, which also makes use of a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

YouTube, of course, has taken down or blocked any videos from the terrorist group, just as Twitter has gone through a lot of trouble to delete the accounts of anyone associated with them.

In fact, Islamic State was forced to use a little-known social media alternative called Diaspora to publicize it beheading videos. They’ve since been booted off there as well.

Still that doesn’t mean they have been silenced. Supporters, for example, will sometimes hijack popular hashtags to get their message out on Twitter.

And ABC News has reported that a well-educated American may be behind the group’s social media campaign.

The FBI is quoted as saying his expertise includes a “college degree related to computer technology” and that he “was previously employed at a telecommunications company.”

Even so, if you were worried by revelations of social media snooping by the National Security Agency in the U.S., don’t forget that their primary targets are Islamic State and their sympathizers. The same social media tools used by IS for recruitment are also used by Western investigators to track them down.

“You can have a sense of actually knowing someone, a sense of intimacy with someone you’ve never met,” said J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst who monitors the Islamic State’s online presence, in an article published by the Wall Street Journal.

So, yes, the battle for hearts and minds on social media has already begun, and there are major players taking part. It’s really not much different from the propaganda efforts that have been a part of every war.

Are these wars of words helpful in any way? Forums like the one held at TRU demonstrate that words are always important. And if they prevent even a few drops of blood from being shed, then the more the better.

Image credit: lacejones