YouTube's Battle Against ISIS

It wants videos with "reasonable messages, better messages" to drown out extremism, and is recruiting Muslims to make them. But will it work?
Kriti Kaur/The Huffington Post

On a Thursday night late last fall, after leaving the Manhattan office where he works as a digital products specialist, Aman Ali -- a well-known comedian in American Muslim circles -- received an unusual email from YouTube.

“We need you,” read the note, which invited Ali to the company’s sprawling, 41,000-square-foot production facility in Los Angeles and promised a free flight and two nights in a hotel. “Muslim community leaders [are] struggling to have their voices heard against the overwhelming extremist and bigoted content currently surfacing the web.”

The words “Islamic State” appeared nowhere in the note asking Muslims like Ali to “change the discourse,” but the message was clear. The terrorist organization's vast media arm, with its slick recruitment videos, was winning the propaganda war. Muslims needed to figure out a way to fight back and “get your voices heard.”

YouTube, facing pressure after unwittingly hosting execution clips before the company could realize and take them down, was offering its helping hand.

Nearly two months later, on a Saturday in January, about 70 Muslims arrived at a closed-door meeting at YouTube’s studios. They comprised a who’s-who of imams, scholars, activists, Muslim vloggers and entertainers from across the U.S. Many had witnessed extremism first-hand, such as imam Suhaib Webb, who was the face of the Boston Muslim community in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. For nine hours, experts, many of them Muslims, briefed participants and brainstormed how to combat online extremism.

Imams were paired with entertainers; scholars were seated with a few of YouTube’s non-Muslim power users, who peppered the crowd and gave tips on how they had built up millions of subscribers with pop culture commentary. Mimicking a tech startup camp, attendees broke into small groups to debate what technologies and strategies worked best.

Aman Ali - Homegrown Homies

Among the questions addressed: Supporters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, were sending out tens of thousands of tweets per day and the State Department and individual imams had been trying to combat those one by one, but could a three-minute video do the trick better than one-off text missives on social media? Were would-be extremists simply miseducated about their faith, in need of a theological lesson? Would audiences respond better to comedy or politics? The terrorist group exploited the idea that Muslims were oppressed in the West. How could Muslims prove them wrong?

“They weren’t telling us to go out there and just talk about ISIS. They were telling us to get out there and be ourselves,” says Ali, 30, who since then has garnered more than 150,000 views for mini-docs and comedy sketches he’s uploaded to YouTube on Muslim life in America. “They were saying, ‘yo, get out there, and here’s how you can get people to pay attention to you instead of them.’”

As the United States continues its war on ISIS while arresting a growing number of would-be recruits at home, Muslims and tech giants are joining forces to wage their own battle for the hearts and minds of the faithful. Some are self-starters, working from home offices with simple webcams to create video blogs on Muslim life, but many Muslims have also teamed up with YouTube. The company is quietly tutoring vloggers and budding directors on everything from camera angles and continuity to search engine optimization, best practices for headlines and how to go viral.

“ISIS is having a viral moment on social media and the countervailing viewpoints are nowhere near strong enough to oppose them,” Victoria Grand, YouTube's top policy director, told media executives last month at a the Cannes Lions advertising festival, in one of the platform's strongest statements to date on the propaganda war against the group. YouTube is “still seeing about two or three of these beheadings each week,” Grand added.

But while YouTube has said it removes content that violates local laws or promotes terrorism, Grand argued against relying solely on censorship. Speaking at the same forum, David Drummond, the top legal officer for the company, pressed media influencers to focus on “drowning out” the Islamic State with “better messages, with reasonable messages.”

Haroon Moghul - Avenue M

YouTube representatives declined to speak on the record to The Huffington Post about its anti-extremism programs, and said the company preferred to promote people who create videos instead. According to several participants in its programs, the company has also shied away from talking about its work in the area in order to avoid seeming too close to government-led efforts.

An estimated 150 Americans, many in their 20s or younger, have joined or attempted to join ISIS since 2013. A Fordham University study found that this year alone, at least 47 cases have been filed in federal court against Americans for supporting the Islamic State. According to federal officials, many were radicalized online, after visiting propaganda websites and videos, or striking up foreign friendships on social networking sites like Twitter or the messaging application KiK.

“ISIS has these swaths of people helping them produce their media strategy. The idea on the other side is to flood the airwaves, one by one, with messages from everyday Muslims on what Islam is about to them,” said Tanya Silverman, a program associate at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The organization tracks the Islamic State and funds counterextremism programs globally, as well as connects video makers to YouTube, Facebook and government agencies to boost their profiles. A successful counternarrative doesn’t have to refute the militants point-by-point, she said, or even mention them. “As long as someone is watching your video about being a Muslim-American in New York instead of one about ISIS luring you over,” Silverman said, that can be enough.

Shortly after the YouTube summit, Ali and his brother launched Homegrown Homies, an online documentary series that has addressed lighter cultural issues (debunking traditional thinking among Muslims that forbids having dogs as pets) as well as painful subjects (gang violence and poverty among black Muslims in Newark, New Jersey). Between longer segments, YouTube has granted Ali free access to its Manhattan studios to tape his own bits, like one about the comedic struggles of being a single Muslim man in the city.

Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School -- Shakes & Shaykhs

“Muslims are the biggest recipients of propaganda, and we have to fight back with our own,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a Somali-American gas station owner in Minneapolis who used his savings to launch “Average Mohamed,” a cartoon series aimed at kids. One of the first episodes, titled “Islamic State Job Description,” has the 40-year-old doing a voiceover: “Your job description is to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews; terrorize innocent women, men and children like your family, into blind obedience; behead unarmed innocent people you round up; destroy World Heritage sites, mosques, tombs and shrines. ... Not exactly Disney World or an action film like the propaganda says it is, is it?”

Ahmed, who wasn’t at the L.A. gathering, recently received a $5,000 grant from a deradicalization organization to create new episodes, and has been getting tips from YouTube on how to go viral. In another video, translated into Somali and Swahili, Ahmed quotes the prophet to argue against suicide bombing: “Whoever commits suicide with piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the hellfire,” he says, citing Sahih al-Bukhari, a widely quoted collection of hadith, or sayings and doings of the prophet, by a 9th-century Islamic scholar.

In “Shakes and Shaykhs,” another series that launched after the YouTube conference and features faculty from Southern California’s Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, Muslim scholars discuss topics ranging from their favorite books and views on schools of Islamic law to the reality show “Swamp People,” which follows alligator hunters in Louisiana.

It’s the kind of pop culture-meets-theology discussion that those behind the world’s largest video platform have encouraged Muslims to pursue. In February, YouTube officials were among several tech representatives who attended the White House’s first summit on countering violent extremism, where the government announced a series of anti-extremism tech camps. A YouTube representative said the company has long led workshops and offered studio space to videographers, but indicated the anti-extremism workshops were newer. More are planned in cities across Europe and Asia, where the company partners with nongovernmental organizations in countries including Indonesia and Malaysia.

Average Mohamed

While YouTube has been quiet about its role in recruiting Muslims to its anti-extremist cause, government representatives have been bolder about their hopes that tech giants and Muslims will do more to counter the countless Islamic State's media machine. Six months after the White House summit, a bill is making its way through Congress that would establish a $40 million anti-extremism office in the Department of Homeland Security. Its tasks would include pushing social media and video. But critics have asked how much the focus should be on Muslims in light of data that white supremacists, anti-government separatists and non-Muslims to have been responsible for more deaths in the country since the Sept. 11 attacks.

With conservative estimates putting the Islamic State and its supporters at sending out 90,000 tweets a day and several videos each week -- from gruesome executions to tamer propaganda -- critics also wonder if the Americans are doing too little too late.

“There are marches, movements, YouTube videos, comedy shows and all of this is great, but it's not going to fundamentally change the numbers of extremists being recruited unless it is scaled up massively and approached through a 24/7 social movement,” said Farah Pandith, who ended a five-year appointment as the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities in January 2014, a job that included counterextremism.

“Can you know for sure that it was a program or video that changed someone’s mind? We need evidence and that takes time. Look at a campaign like getting kids to stop smoking or use condoms for safer safe sex campaign. It has usually taken years and a consistent campaign and years to blast the marketplace with those ideas and messages,” said Pandith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Others are more optimistic about more immediate results.

“The only metric the government cares about is lack of bombings, and no video can definitively prove that,” said Shahed Amunullah, a former senior adviser for technology at the State Department who recently co-founded Affinis Labs, an incubator for Muslim-themed startups. Its portfolio ranges from an Islamic dating app to ComeBack2.Us, a platform to help families of Islamic State fighters convince loved ones to return home. All are vying for what he called the “the 500 million-strong Muslim youth market that is woefully underserved.”

“But when you have certain viewers of a website or an app, those are real numbers and real people being affected,” said Amunullah, who also attended YouTube’s anti-extremism workshop. “We’re like Walmart here with so many resources, yet this little startup of ISIS is running circles around us. They are driven by passion, not afraid of risk, and leverage the crowd. We need to do the same thing, too.”

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