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How to Fight Online Recruitment By ISIS

Submitted by Robin Messing on Mon, 01/18/2016 - 9:10pm

In his Daily Beast column, "Can Muslim American's Stop ISIS?", Dean Obeidallah notes that Muslim leaders are already reaching out to fellow Muslims to prevent them from turning to the evil distorted version of Islam presented by ISIS and al-Qaeda. But reaching out to potential ISIS recruits in mosques and on the street is not enough because their most effective recruiting takes place online.  Obeidalla writes:

[Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) ]  noted that the challenge is that these lone wolf terrorists are in general neither part of the Muslim community nor attending mosques. Or if they are mosque goers like it appears the San Bernardino shooter was, the radicalization doesn’t occur there but rather online.


This very point was also made by Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.  As Hughes noted, there were 56 people arrested in the United States in 2015 for ISIS-related activities. How do these people get recruited? Primarily through social media as ISIS recruiters reach out and groom people to join.

Hughes, who recently co-authored a must-read report (PDF) on ISIS’s recruitment efforts in the United States, notes that  ISIS’s sales pitch is tailored to each person.  In general they will play upon a  “grievance” the person has and explain how ISIS will help them address that. These can range from foreign policy grievances to religious issues to revenge for Muslims killed by the West.  Hughes noted that ISIS will then twist and pervert Islam to support its sales pitch.

The biggest takeaway though from Hughes and his report was that there is “no silver bullet” to stop ISIS’s recruitment efforts.

I don't have a silver bullet, but I do have a bronze bullet that can hamper ISIS recruiting while reducing the disturbingly high levels of Islamophobia that has led to a record number of attacks in the United States against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.

Before discussing my bronze bullet, I must first mention that Twitter and other social media sites delete accounts thought to be associated with ISIS, but this tactic can only have limited success. The Brookings Institution estimated that ISIS supporters were behind 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014.  Twitter removed 1,000 of them during that time, but between January and June 2015 it refused to honor 25 requests by U.S. government officials to remove accounts they claimed to belong to ISIS supporters.  I am not sure why Twitter refused to honor these requests, but Twitter's refusal is likely to become Exhibit A in a lawsuit filed by Tamara Fields, a Florida woman whose husband was killed by ISIS in Jordan. This lawsuit may spur Twitter to become more aggressive in removing questionable accounts, but even if Twitter becomes VERY aggressive it will only have a limited impact on ISIS.  It only takes an ISIS supporter five minutes to open up a new account after losing an old one, thus forcing social media site owners into a never ending game of whack-a-mole.

So what else can social media sites do if they can't keep ISIS off of them completely?  They can inoculate their users with a vaccine that will reduce their vulnerability to ISIS propaganda.  Here's how Twitter can do this.  I will be using "Twitter" as an example, but what follows pertains to Youtube, Facebook, and other social media sites as well.

Users of a site have to read a Terms of Service agreement and click "I agree" whenever they sign up for a new account.  Of course, most people just click "I agree" without reading the TOS agreement, but whether they have actually read the TOS or not makes no difference to what follows.  

Twitter should present users with a second message after they click on the box acknowledging their agreement to the TOS.  It would be short and simple and impossible to ignore.  It should state:
Before we allow you to open a new account, we require you to read the following open letter to potential ISIL recruits.
We have designed a very special treasure hunt to ensure your actually read most of the letter before we allow you to have a new account. There is a nonsense sentence embedded somewhere within the article. It will be VERY obvious that the sentence is nonsense and does not belong in the article.  For example, you might find the following buried somewhere at random within the article:
The mouse chased the cat until it played "They're coming to take me away" on the violin.  
You must find the nonsense sentence, copy it, and paste it into the box below in order to obtain an account. 
After users completes this task they should have to go through one more screen before getting their new accounts. The final screen should say:
I acknowledge that hundreds of Islamic scholars have condemned ISIS and have agreed with extensive analysis based on sacred Islamic texts proving that ISIS's brutal activity is justified only by a twisted and evil interpretation of Islam.  The vast majority of Muslims around the world condemn ISIS as unIslamic. For more details, see the following.

Muslim Scholars Release Open Letter To Islamic State Meticulously Blasting Its Ideology

An Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi

Making users go through these two additional screens will reduce violent Islamic extremism and protect the vast majority of Muslims who are decent people in several ways. 
1) It will give ISIS newbies and those tempted to join ISIS solid ISLAMIC reasons to turn away from their path.
2) It will require non-Muslims to acknowledge that mainstream Islamic scholars are fighting an intellectual war against ISIS. It will combat the myth that Muslims aren't speaking out against ISIS. This knowledge may reduce discrimination against Muslims and prevent violent attacks against them and their mosques.
3) Muslims are more likely to be radicalized if they feel isolated, discriminated against, and attacked. By preventing violent attacks and reducing discrimination against them, it is likely to reduce the number of Muslims who become radicalized, thus further choking off a supply of troops for ISIS and al-Qaeda.
So far I have only discussed sending messages to those opening up new accounts. If Twitter really wants to fight ISIS it should send these messages to the message box of each existing account as well.



The Role of Congress

Social media sites might be reluctant to adopt my suggestion if they fear doing so would make them targets for ISIS terrorists.  Congress can help these sites by passing a law encouraging them to implement my proposal.  The law should state that any site that implements my suggestion will be granted immunity from lawsuits like the one being filed by Tamara Fields against Twitter.  Social media sites can then say that it wasn't their idea to post these messages.  They just had to post them to avoid risking lawsuits that could drive them into bankruptcy.
Update 2/7/16: Twitter has gotten much more aggressive in searching out accounts belonging to ISIS and deleting them since the middle of 2015.  They have appointed more staff to reviewing questionable posts, used proprietary spam-detecting software, and partnered with law enforcement agencies to detect and then delete terrorist accounts.  As a result, Twitter reports it has "suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS."  Twitter should be enthusiastically praised for its vigorous actions.  Of course, none of this should prevent Twitter from doing more by implementing my suggestion to inoculate potential recruits by showing them that rigorous Islamic analysis condemning ISIS.