The Obama administration is launching a stealth anti-Islamic State messaging campaign, delivered by proxies and targeted to individual would-be extremists, the same way Amazon or Google sends you shopping suggestions based on your online browsing history.
At least that’s the plan, revealed Monday, of new anti-ISIS message czar Michael Lumpkin, now that the White House has put the ink to the final legal measures establishing the Center for Global Engagement, which replaces previous less-than-successful efforts. The new executive order (PDF) expands what Lumpkin can spend, who he can hire, and which parts of the U.S. government he can pull into the new campaign.
“I intend to do what we have done in special operations” to hunt ISIS terrorists, Lumpkin told The Daily Beast. “You need a network to defeat a network, so we’re going to take a network approach to our messaging.”
Those messages won’t say “made in the U.S.A.”
The new center “is not going to be focused on U.S. messages with a government stamp on them, but rather amplifying moderate credible voices in the region and throughout civil society,” said Lisa Monaco, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. “Recognizing who is going to have the most legitimate voice and doing everything we can to lift that up and not have it be a U.S. message.”
The idea is to give local nonprofits, regional leaders, or activists invisible financial support and technical expertise to make their videos or websites or radio programs look and sound professional—and let them own and distribute the message.
The center will also employ data analysts who will work with private industry partners to sift through the public information any user leaves on social media, to determine who might be leaning toward radicalism and message them directly—though how isn’t clear yet.
“This is uncharted territory,” Lumpkin said. “The U.S. government has not done this type of discrete scalpel-like messaging before.”
Lumpkin is a former Navy SEAL who has political capital to spend after running special operations at the Pentagon since December 2013 and managing successful Joint Special Operations Command raids and the occasional drone strike in Syria and Libya, among other tasks.
He has been blunt in his critique of the previous messaging efforts by the much-maligned and now defunct Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
“Our response to their propaganda has been under-resourced, too slow, and too cautious,” Lumpkin said in comments before the Global Special Operations Forces Symposium last month in Palm Harbor, Florida. “In the face of a nimble, adaptive opponent unconstrained by truth or ethics, our people are left swimming in bureaucracy, using outdated technology,” he told the audience of current and former special operators.
Lumpkin has fought to double the center’s budget from $10 million last year to more than $20 million requested for next year, and he says he’ll ask for more after that.
The new center will work a bit like a Hollywood talent agent—finding other, more legitimate voices and making them the star. It will rely on embassies worldwide to reach out to local leaders, media professionals, and others to join the messaging network. The State Department will also help them develop the material.
Frustratingly for journalists and other advocates of government transparency, the center will seldom reveal who it is supporting, just as special operators don’t reveal the forces they are training unless that nation chooses to reveal it.
“I don’t want to burn our partners,” Lumpkin said, while acknowledging that his office is already working with a handful of non-governmental agencies, some of which approached his office for help.
“We’re helping guide them, hiring out content to be developed, giving them the contact,” Lumpkin said. “They will put their own logos on it and call it their own, which I am very happy with, and then we can help amplify it and hand it to other people to repurpose it, but they’re kind of on their own once they’ve got it.”
The Daily Beast tracked down two of the regional experts working with the State Department, who agreed to describe their cooperation on condition that they were not identified. They said they had approached the State Department for funding, and got a small grant, with the only stipulation being that they make whatever they produced available to the public.
That means these U.S.-funded programs will produce material that may travel the Web and be seen by American citizens—an issue Lumpkin acknowledges.
“Clearly at the State Department, we don’t message U.S. citizens,” Lumpkin said. That would be done by the new Homeland Security office to counter violent extremism, which is in a similarly embryonic stage.
But if a U.S. citizen comes across the material, it’s the same as choosing to follow the State Department’s anti-ISIS Twitter account, he added.
Then there’s the delivery of the content. That’s where the big data analysts come in. Lumpkin will be contracting private companies that crunch the public trail of information Internet users leave behind, just like they do for large retailers looking for new buyers.
His team has also met with social media companies to explore the parameters of their privacy agreements and hear how they police their sites for violent extremism.
It’s a touchy subject at social media companies, in an era when so many firms were burned by the revelations of cooperation in the Edward Snowden documents.
Facebook spokesman Jodi Seth said they’d shared research with Lumpkin and other administration officials showing “factors that help make counter-speech more successful,” including the format of the content (i.e., generally it is better to share photos and video instead of text) and tone of the content (the most successful forms of counter-speech were constructive, and satire and humor worked better than attacks).
She added that the research shows the speaker is very important and should be directly related to the targeted audience, sometimes a celebrity, sometimes a former extremist or community leader—all advice Lumpkin has obviously incorporated into the new program.
“They clearly have business equities… and they have privacy arrangements with their customers and we don’t want to infringe on that,” Lumpkin said. There’s plenty that can be learned from “open source” information, i.e., information that anyone with a laptop can find on the Web.
“The big data is there. You just have to figure out how to use it,” he said.
When he took charge, he put a stop to tweeting at terrorists—engaging in open rhetorical battles with hardcore ISIS followers on public social media platforms, as previous iterations of the new Global Engagement Center had done. Previous leaders had stopped the tweet battle in English, but continued it in Arabic and other regional languages.
“Those are hardcore followers, so we decided it’s not worth our energy to focus on them,” one official involved in the program explained.
Lumpkin wants to focus on those who are vulnerable to ISIS’s message and emulate how ISIS goes after its followers.
“Usually it starts on Twitter, then it goes to Facebook, then it goes to Instagram, and ultimately, it goes to Telegram or some other encrypted, point-to-point discussion,” he said. “They are doing what Amazon does. They are targeting selected information to an individual based on their receptivity. We need to do the same thing.”
The office has flip-flopped through different leaders and strategies, with uneven-to-little success. The State Department’s Twitter handle Think Again, Turn Away has only 26,000 followers, and much of the anti-ISIS propaganda videos it has released on a dedicated YouTube channel has been widely panned as “gruesome.”
Back in 2014, senior State Department officials touted their success in stemming the flow of ISIS recruits. But the numbers released by the U.S. intelligence community soon overturned that assessment, rising from an estimated 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq in 2014 to just above 38,000 foreign fighters now, with many of them counted in the ranks of ISIS as well as al Nusra and other rebel groups.
Estimates of the size of ISIS tracked that rise, going from a few thousand to a high of 30,000 last year. An all-source intelligence estimate has since downgraded ISIS’s size, to a range of 19,000-25,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, though a U.S. intelligence official said that was due to “the combined effects of battlefield deaths, desertions, internal disciplinary actions, recruiting shortfalls, and difficulties that foreign fighters face traveling to Syria.”
Lumpkin said he’ll use sophisticated computer analytic programs to measure if the new messages being sent are resonating with the target population, but the only real measure is if the numbers of ISIS recruits goes down.
“The goal is that you have to stop the recruiting,” he said. “You do that through those who are likely to be radicalized and catch them early… to make sure that the true nature of these violent extremist groups is well known so they don’t end up joining. It’s not what they think it is.