Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Silicon Valley Meets The Snake Eaters: State Department’s Countermessaging Goes Back To The Future

Silicon Valley Meets The Snake Eaters: State Department’s Countermessaging Goes Back To The Future

“Bring in folks from Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue….” That’s right, the three sexiest characters in modern lore, ad men, Steve Jobs disciples and Special Forces bubbas will come together in a unbelievable mashup designed to counter extremist Internet propaganda.  Using big data analytics and “crowdsourced” content, terrorists who once shocked the Western world with their slick videos and use of the Internet for radicalization and recruitment will be undermined and countered by new snazzy taglines and inventive technology.  Mind blowing tweets and social media posts would lead a communication revolution by which U.S. counterterrorists would undermine terrorist messages and rip the underlying motivations out from under jihadis through the precise and timely delivery of a mind melting emoticon.


At first, one might think I’m talking about the Obama Administration’s recent announcement overhauling the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications into the Global Engagement Center. As discussed last week on NPR, the new Global Engagement Center will be, “bringing people from Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue who can help us work through our approach and the information battle space.”  But the scene I describe above happened from 2007 – 2010 where I and many other analysts teamed up with what was then referred to as “New Media” experts to identify the best practices of an emerging class of social media gurus.

We were designated by U.S. Special Operations Command to pick the brains of these new oracles and find out how to incorporate their novel insights into U.S. information operations doctrine. Fuzzball tables knocking in the lobby, perched on beanbags and randomly spouting the phrase “simplicity of design”, the Silicon Valley folks would describe in lofty, vague jargon how the U.S. government could easily overtake al Qaeda on the Internet.  Briefings ensued, reports were written and military officers rapidly repeated the latest social media jargon in every PowerPoint slide deck they made for the next three years.  After all this research and collaboration, nights of charts and metrics followed by endless messaging campaign plans, one would think that the U.S. government must have really gotten the edge on al Qaeda and taken it to the terrorists on the Internet. But in actuality, nothing happened at all, and the rise of ISIS might suggest that all this study did was to make the U.S. government worse at social media.

I worry the State Department’s new approach looks eerily like failed attempts from the last decade and I hope this new effort avoids past mistakes.  The social media marketing gurus’ ideas largely didn’t work.  Their winning strategies sought to sell lots of things to lots of people. They proved far less effective at convincing angry young men from sympathizing with or joining extremist groups. More important during the NPR interview was what was not said.  The Global Engagement Center’s predecessor CSCC suffered mostly from challenges outside of its control.  Here are my takeaways and thoughts on State Department’s new messaging direction.

  • Too many critics – The State Department’s CSCC had to satisfy too many audiences to be successful.  They should be solely focused on countering ISIS and their online supporters.  Instead, pleasing internal bureaucrats fearing the scrutiny of media pundits who pick apart the organizations every message became the primary objective.  Essentially, pleasing every DC blogger with a political science degree became a higher priority than debunking ISIS. A few weeks back, Will McCants and I discussed just some of these internal machinations that hampered the CSCC’s ability to maneuver.  Unless there is some political bravery on the administration’s part, then every effort in this space will fail before it even starts.
  • Big data analytics rather than production & engagement  – The new strategy focuses considerably on big data analytics and metrics. Analytics and metrics tracking in the messaging world means analysts sending each other color coded charts and briefing them to their bosses. There is then lots of discussion about the metrics, and it feels like something is getting done.  These discussions though are mostly bureaucratic theater, for there is so little anti-ISIS content being generated for which metrics can even be generated.  U.S. failings against ISIS messaging are not about measurement or focus, but market share.  The CSCC has shown steady improvement in their production, but their content represents little more than a drop in the ISIS social media sea. Even in its decline, ISIS content continues to pour out.  The new direction should allow for more content production, dissemination, and engagement, but seems instead moving to do the reverse.
  • Can they bring in top talent? – The CSCC already has really talented interdisciplinary teams.  But it seems they are missing the “silver bullet” social media gurus.  Most U.S. government efforts to bring in outside talent fail.  Pay is too low, locations are undesirable, or the best candidates simply can’t pass the background check for a security clearance because they, like 99% of Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue, have smoked weed too many times for the government’s liking.  Even those that months or years later make it through the wickets of government employee screening become quickly disillusioned by the paralysis of bureaucracy and the limitations put on their skills. Does the new Global Engagement Center have a plan to overcome these challenges that have plagued so many previous talent efforts? If not, they’ll likely only attract Silicon Valley’s least innovative.
  • How about behavioral economists instead of “Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley”? – The goal in U.S. messaging is ultimately to change the behavior of extremists and their supporters, turning them away from ISIS’s message and deterring those considering joining their ranks.  Advertising executives and social media marketers are good at getting people to buy things.  But, behavioral economists are better at changing behavior.  As an example, Richard Thaler, in his book Nudge, describes techniques for influencing how people make decisions not to participate in harmful activities.  I believe these behavioral economists will prove more useful divining strategies and messages that curb incentives for joining the ranks of ISIS.

I do hope that the new Global Engagement Center can continue its mission and gets the space it needs to experiment, but I feel that this won’t be the case. If the administration can’t tolerate a little chiding about its messaging campaigns, then they should just stop messaging all together.   It’s better to surrender the information space now, than to continue to lose a fight they’re only half in.