Why the U.S. government's counterterrorism tweeters are finding it tough to fight ISIS online

In its ascent, ISIS—the murderous extremist group controlling territory in Syria and Iraq that President Barack Obama has declared war on—has wielded a powerful weapon: social media. Its extensive online presence, which ranges from the posting of lolcat-like photos to videos of violent beheadings, has extended the organization’s reach and boosted recruitment efforts that have fueled its rapid growth. And the State Department has mounted an initiative to beat back the Internet propaganda of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. But a senior State Department official says that because the group’s social media messaging contains an “element of truth,” it is hard to combat its online campaign.

In 2011, the State Department launched the Center for Strategic Counter-terrorism Communication, which developed anti-terrorism Twitter accounts that were first directed at Al Qaeda. The goal: to directly engage with people overseas who were interested in or drawn to the beliefs and actions of extremist organizations. The online campaign is called “Think Again, Turn Away,” and it includes accounts in several languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Somali and English. These Twitter feeds routinely posts articles and messages countering jihadist claims and arguments. The group also manages social media accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Google Plus.

And there is snark: Once, when a known Australian jihadist was claiming to be fighting in the Middle East for the Islamic State, the State Department tweeted a video of him being arrested on a beach in the Philippines, mocking him for lying about his whereabouts. The tweet reads “[email protected] Turns out that you were having fun on the beaches of the Philippines rather than doing #HijrahToIS.” (The word “hijrah” refers to a journey first taken by Muhammad. “IS” is shorthand for the Islamic State.)

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