Can the U.S. Counter ISIS on Social Media?

The continued success of ISIS in using social media platforms for global recruitment has frustrated American officials. In an internal State Department memo published by the New York Times last month, undersecretary of public diplomacy Richard Stengel commented on the common perception amongst US allies who likened the terror organization's global expansion to that of Starbucks franchises.

Led by the inter-agency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), the Obama administration has taken the war on ISIS to social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, where such initiatives as the Think Again Turn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) have emerged. This campaign aims to counter-radicalization and dissuade young Muslims from joining ISIS.
In a recent Op-Ed published in USA Today, Undersecretary Stengel offered his vision of "The right path to counter Daesh." In this article, he announced the establishment of the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi where American led efforts would foster and promote an alternative narrative to that of ISIS.

For nearly a decade, the American narrative regarding ISIS was based on a 9/11 war on terror worldview. Yet, such a perspective may be inconsistent with that of many Sunni Muslims who view the ISIS phenomenon as a reaction to the oppression of Sunnis and the expanding Shiite-Sunni civil war.

Two key limitations continuously undermine America's online war of ideas with the terror organization. The first has to do with America's message. The second has to do with the messenger itself.

As presented, America's narrative to young Muslims presents ISIS is a brutal terror organization that hijacked Islam. It claims that its Middle East policies aim to fight terrorism and promote democracy and human rights.

Such a narrative may resonate with Western audiences but is disconnected from the post Arab-Spring geo-political realities of the region. For those who view the region in terms of a Sunni-Shiite conflict, America's foreign policy consistently seems to favor the Shiite over their Sunni rivals.

After decades of exclusive rule and domination of Shiites, Iraq's Sunnis were stripped of their power by the Bush administration's experiment in democracy. While the Americans provided the oppressed Shiite equal vote, they did not provide the Sunnis with minority protections or a guarantee of rightful participation in the political process of post-war Iraq. The American supported Maliki government soon sided with Iran and disenfranchised and oppressed Iraq's Sunni population.

Sunni frustration and distrust of the United States was further amplified by the Obama administration's mumbled and inconsistent Syria policy that failed to prevent Assad's slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Sunni civilians.

In the case of both Syria and Iraq, ISIS was the only force to achieve meaningful military victories over the Shiite rivals. These achievements are key to the organization's global recruiting success as it positions the organization as a legitimate Sunni military power.

What many in the Obama administration fail to recognize is that American foreign policy seems to position the U.S. as an Iranian ally. Such perceptions are supported by the ongoing American-Iranian military cooperation in Iraq and by the nuclear deal that legitimized the Iran regime and its quest to become the regional superpower.

Based on America's foreign policy in Iraq, Syria and Iran, the U.S. lacks credibility among a growing mainstream who view ISIS as a Sunni counterweight to Shiite regional hegemony.

As a general rule, public diplomacy campaigns both traditional and on social media can only be successful when their key claims and proposed values are consistent with the foreign policy.

Undersecretary Stengel and his team should be commended for their valiant effort. However, the utility of digital engagement is limited when not aligned with government strategy.

In order to successfully counter ISIS online recruitment, both the message and messenger should be of Sunni origin. It is the grassroots Sunni religious leadership not Western powers that can effectively articulate the threat that ISIS poses not only to people of the Middle East but also to Islam itself.