Provoked by terrorist recruitment efforts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks, the Senate's Homeland Security Committee is looking to up the U.S. government's social media game.
At a Thursday hearing, entitled "Jihad 2.0," Senators discussed ways the U.S. can prevent individuals from joining terror groups — by investing in online counter-propaganda. The committee chair indicated he will work with the panel on draft legislation with urgency to better combat extremists through messaging campaigns.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, emphasized the importance of using social media to reach young people, arguing that the medium's users skew young, as do the populations of Arab-muslim nations. Describing the dearth of government resources spent on social media operations and the low quality of U.S.-led campaigns, he said, "crude is a generous statement."
"I was surprised if not stunned at how we are approaching our messaging and our counter-messaging," Sen. Booker said, as he passed around his iPad inviting his colleagues to toggle between two open browser tabs, one set to a "slick," "attractive" extremist YouTube video and the other to a State Department website whose engagement he described as "laughable." "Three retweets, two retweets," he said, referring to the audience garnered by the State Department's anti-terror information campaign, "Think Again Turn Away."
"There are easy tactics [to] get more voice and virality to messaging that we are not using as a government," Sen. Booker said. "Look at their fancy memes compared to what we are not doing."
Mubin Shaikh, an author and former Canadian intelligence officer who spoke as an expert witness at the hearing, agreed with Sen. Booker's youth-centric message. "If you want to fight back against recruitment of 15 year old kids, you need to work with 15 year old kids."
Chairman Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, said, "There is an obvious piece of legislation that we need to start working on. "I've already directed the staff."
"Lets face it," Johnson said. "We invented the internet, we invented these social network sites, we've got Hollywood, we've got the capabilities...to blow these guys out of the water."
The Senate's call for non-military strategies to combat terrorism follows efforts by Major General Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, who's taken a special interest in understanding the psychological and cultural power behind terror groups.
"We must, in partnership with our allies abroad, start examining more closely the root causes of why Westerners join the ranks and act in the name of ISIS or Al Qaeda." said Ranking Member Thomas Carper, a Democrat from Delaware.
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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