In recent months, the U.S. government has taken some nontraditional steps to enhance its countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy. Officials from the White House and Department of Defense met with tech leaders in Silicon Valley to discuss ways to improve counter-messaging efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS). White House officials also met with Hollywood studio executives to brainstorm ideas on how to counter ISIS. These meetings took place amidst an effort by the State Department to reorganize two of its agencies that are heavily involved in CVE efforts. The meetings, if followed up on properly, could potentially help to revamp the State Department’s CVE strategies.

Since 2011, the White House has increasingly placed emphasis on efforts to counter extremist ideologies. The rise of ISIS prompted efforts to reinvigorate the administration’s CVE strategy. The White House held two summits on countering ISIS and violent extremism last year - one in February one in September- and government agencies have launched a number of domestic CVE efforts since then.


The State Department’s overhaul of two agencies heavily involved in CVE operations is a key development in the messaging war against ISIS. The Bureau of Counterterrorism will be transformed into the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, while the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) will become the new Global Engagement Center (GEC). The overhaul follows acknowledgment that US efforts to counter violent extremism have fallen short.

There have been multiple attempts to explain why the government’s CVE efforts were such as disappointment. Poor evaluation and tactical choices certainly contributed. A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found that while the Bureau of Counterterrorism identified CVE as a priority, the government failed to adequately fund CVE programs and evaluate their impact. The CSCC, formed in 2011 to coordinate foreign communications activities against terrorism, also suffered from inadequate funding considering the rhetorical priority afforded to CVE. Meanwhile, as some critics have pointed out, CSCC attempts to counter extremist narratives were counterproductive due to their use of sarcastic language and graphic imagery.

The changes to the CVE effort suggest that the government is beginning to understand the importance of appealing to values and capitalizing on cooperation with local partners. According to Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, the GEC, recognizing that the US government is “not going to be the most legitimate messenger” of CVE narratives, will focus on “amplifying moderate, credible voices” in the Middle East and North Africa.

Key to enhancing the State Department’s counter-ISIS messaging operations is the administration's outreach to tech experts in Silicon Valley, entertainment executives in Hollywood, and marketing gurus on Madison Avenue, which the administration is calling the “Madison Valleywood Project.”  Relationships with leaders in these industries aim to help the administration find "ways to create, publish and amplify content... that counteracts the radicalizing messaging."

The meetings have the potential to better inform and therefore enhance CVE efforts. However, the takeaways the administration is hoping for have so far been misplaced. It is true that the State Department’s anti-radicalization messaging needs to be made more effective. Yet the solution should not be to outsource that effort to social media organizations by using them to amplify anti-ISIS material and asking them to more actively block messages, images, and videos that are sympathetic to ISIS and other extremist organizations.

The core challenge to CVE messaging efforts has been one of measurement. At its core, CVE is a preventative effort. Proving that anti-ISIS messaging coming out of the State Department succeeds in preventing someone from joining ISIS or engaging with its radical narrative is no easy feat. Foreign Policy reports that a year after Obama’s first major CVE summit, “officials continue to shrug when asked how they measure the effectiveness of programs or collect data to determine trustworthy partners in local communities to counter extremist messages.”

Rather than stick to a defensive strategy of disabling certain social media content and accounts, firms and organizations involved in the administration's Madison Valleywood Project should focus on helping the State Department develop better evaluation metrics. The State Department could then help local “amplifying” partners measure the effectiveness of their messaging campaigns. Recent innovations in social media tracking and marketing can help. New York-based Upworthy is developing storytelling strategies to ensure that online content optimizes attention and active engagement. NewsLynx helps newsrooms measure the quantitative and qualitative impact of their output. MediaCloud allows users to track what language is used to discuss certain issues to identify frames that appear in reporting. Organizations like NetBase are focusing on using sentiment-based insights from social media to develop marketing approaches catered to specific audiences.

In fact, the Executive Order establishing the GEC, which was signed by President Obama on March 14, indicates an understanding of the importance of evaluation. Under the executive order, a temporary Global Engagement Center Coordination Office (GECCO) will be established to “develop research and analytics to enable measurement and evaluation of the activities” of the GEC and related agencies. The executive order also says that the GECCO will assist the government in developing partnerships with entities in the private sector. This paves the way for the GEC to cooperate with industry leaders to establish clear evaluation metrics, in addition to identifying individuals vulnerable to ISIS recruitment.

Media tracking technologies can help the State Department's new GEC begin to measure the effectiveness of its online CVE efforts. Reliable methods to assess counter messaging cannot and should not be separated from the counter messaging efforts themselves. If the current administration is serious about reinvigorating its CVE strategy, it should get serious about developing evaluation tools rather than employing defensive measures.

Svet is an international security analyst based in Washington, DC. Miller is a Middle East researcher based in Washington, DC.