Senators On Jihad 2.0: We’ll Take Down ISIS With ‘Fancy Memes’

Al-Qaida has been replaced by ISIS at the focal point of counterterrorism efforts. When legislators talk about fighting terrorism, they talk about taking on ISIS. ISIS, like any other organization out there, has used social media platforms to spread its message. Whether or not its efforts have been more successful than previous like-minded organizations hasn’t really been quantified, but for sheer shock value, it has every other terrorist outfit beat.

Because images and recordings of its atrocities have spread through the internet with amazing speed and ease, it’s tempting to view ISIS as a group of digital natives — people whose entire life has been filled with some sort of internet outlet for sociable sharing. The group seems to contain much sought after viral power, but that’s likely due to its audience spending an increasing amount of time viewing the world through a browser, rather than through nightly news reports and morning papers.

The perception is the truth and a few US senators are seeking to counteract ISIS’s viral power by utilizing the same playing fields. This may be a good idea, but it’s also providing for some inadvertent hilarity as legislators put two and two together and get Voice of America: Buzzfeed edition.

“There’s an obvious piece of legislation that we need to start working on,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said during a Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Jihad 2.0“.

“Let’s face it: We invented the Internet. We invented the social network sites. We’ve got Hollywood. We’ve got the capabilities… to blow these guys out of the water from the standpoint of communications.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., backed his colleague’s appeal. “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we’re not doing,” Booker said, displaying examples of jihadist online postings.

This doesn’t bode well. The average member of America’s governing bodies may generally find the use of the adjective “fancy” to still be perfectly normal, but the internet battlefield they’re wishing to enter has never combined the words “fancy” and “meme” before. Booker’s youth puts him in shouting distance of digital natives, but his clumsy phrasing could not have separated him further from the hearts and minds he’s wishing to conquer.

Booker does raise valid points, though. There is some value in deploying counterpropaganda using the same communications channels. He later lamented the “millions” being spent on tools of dubious effectiveness, like Voice of America.

There are ways to deter potential ISIS sympathizers and recruits, but the US is engaged in roughly none of them. A constant military presence that alternated between surges and drone strikes isn’t likely to result in fence-sitters opting for the American way. What’s worse is the FBI’s ongoing Grow Your Own Terrorist!™ program, which has succeeded in saving the world from a collection of “terrorists” whose only criminal act was playing along with undercover agents’ suggestions in exchange for the occasional self-esteem boost. As a result of these so-called sting operations, those who could actually use help in dissuading friends or family members from being swayed by ISIS’s message are instead keeping their concerns to themselves.

[National security expert Peter Bergen] noted that Muslim families who see a son or daughter radicalizing online are deterred from reporting the matter to the FBI out of fear that he or she will be thrown in jail for more than a decade.

When the purchase of plane tickets to certain nations is construed as “providing material support” for terrorism, there’s something wrong with the system.

This isn’t meant to be a total and preemptive condemnation of potential US efforts to engage ISIS on the digital battlefield. The problem is that the government is the entity least likely to do this effectively, seeing as it’s largely unused to deploying anything with subtlety or agility. That it’s calling on Hollywood to help it with its counterterrorism efforts is also a bit concerning, considering it conjures up images of Uncle Sam running a propaganda mill out of a studio backlot. Not only will this do little to sway potential ISIS sympathizers, but it’s also apt to turn more citizens against their government, even if they agree that ISIS is a worthwhile target.

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