Why strong social media campaigns will not stop the spread of terrorism

Why strong social media campaigns will not stop the spread of terrorism
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United States counterterrorism strategy is based on the belief that terrorism is the result of bad ideas rather than poor circumstances. In emphasizing the importance of ideology, the United States is continuing a long tradition of attempting to shape the cultures and attitudes of other people without addressing their actual problems. As a result, our leaders have been fighting terrorism on the wrong battlefield.

Efforts to counter violent extremism through persuasion are nothing new. Since World War II, the United States has invested in a range of traditional media efforts, including magazines and radio news broadcasts, designed to shape foreign attitudes toward the United States and combat the spread of pernicious ideology. The ongoing battle against Salafi jihadism today has been similarly framed as a “contest of ideas.”

The traditional media remains a key component of American efforts to counter violent extremist narratives. In West Africa, the United States has supported the production of radio dramas designed to promote peace and tolerance. In Tunisia, USAID has partnered with the local theater associations and filmmakers to organize performances to curb violence. The social media savvy of terrorist groups like the Islamic State has fueled growing concern about the radicalizing effects of the internet.

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The State Department and USAID have identified the internet, and specifically social media, as major channels that terrorist groups use to recruit new adherents. The United States has since restructured and significantly expanded the State Department Global Engagement Center, which in part seeks to defeat terrorist organizations and disrupt their ability to recruit new followers by “undermining terrorist ideology.”

USAID followed suit with programs such as a pilot project in Niger that created Facebook and Twitter content designed to target youth at risk of recruitment by Boko Haram. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, USAID supported a youth campaign to produce memes that were intended to spread a positive alternative to radical extremist narratives.

However, these social media programs merely repeat a tired strategy of trying to win hearts and minds without investing in tangible change. Terrorist groups use all available channels to spread messages of violence and hate. But terrorist recruitment does not only involve exposure to a few radical tweets. The drivers of violent extremism are both complex and contextual. Geographic proximity to conflict, economic vulnerability, social or political marginalization, and permissive family or social networks can each affect the susceptibility of an individual to terrorist indoctrination and recruitment. Few, if any, of these factors can be directly addressed in a radio drama or a targeted Facebook post.

But terrorism prevention media programs may provide benefits at the local community level in other ways. Some programs have been shown to improve perceptions of community decisions and reduce support for the use of violence. However, such positive effects do not necessarily translate into the desired reduced support for violent extremism.

One evaluation of an American funded radio program in West Africa illustrates that while “individuals who listened more regularly to such programs participated more frequently in civic activities and supported working with the West to combat terrorism” the “higher levels of radio listening had no measurable impact on opposition to the use of violence in the name of Islam or opposition to the imposition of Islamic law.”

The United States has emphasized fighting terrorist ideas rather than ameliorating the grievances that fuel recruitment. Offline solutions could more directly tackle the root causes of terrorism. Programs that prioritize physical security, respond to humanitarian need, and improve local governance should be the foundation of our terrorism prevention efforts. The current approach risks investing too much in countering violent extremism programs that are nothing more than empty words.

Jessica Trisko Darden is an assistant professor of international affairs at the American University School of International Service and a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Evan Abramsky is a research associate with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.