CJ Drew is a senior at West Point, and like most college students he checks Facebook incessantly — "every couple hours," he says. But unlike his peers, he's not counting likes, or scouring for cleavage. CJ is trying to lure would-be-jihadists into conversations about radical Islam on the internet.
CJ is not on the verge of becoming the first ever West Point-educated member of the Islamic State. Quite the opposite: his Facebook activity is sanctioned by the State Department and the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point.
Last week, for the third semester in a row, the State Department hosted the P2P: Challenging Extremism finals in Washington. It's the culmination of an international "peer to peer" marketing contest that enlists youngsters like CJ to combat extremism using the latest advertising techniques.
CJ and his team of West Point cadets just took second place. Their Facebook page — which West Point has asked VICE News not to name — and a corresponding Twitter account and website are all part of what Bryan Price, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center, calls an "inbound marketing" strategy.
"We wanted to use some ambiguity, to draw people in," he explains. Price, CJ, and the team wanted an organic conversation about Jihad to develop between users, and in Price's words "inject some doubt." CJ would chime in, using his three years of college Arabic, to try and spark those kinds of conversations. He did his best not to censor content, except for that one time someone posted "ISIS is all Jews" — he had to delete that.
West Point's team is just one of around 45 P2P groups that formed this past semester around the world. The State Department hopes these "grassroots" campaigns will begin to flood the internet with a sort of "extremism-is-not-cool" vibe. That effort, the government hopes, could eventually coalesce into a strong headwind that pushes back against the appeal of violent extremist movements online.
"Extremism is a destabilizing factor globally," Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan told VICE News outside the location of the final competition last week. What to do about it, she admitted, isn't always so clear. "It's hard to figure out what propels it exactly," she said.
Still, Ryan and the State Department think that a university-centric marketing campaign has the best shot at reaching youngsters who Ryan says are "vulnerable to recruitment. " Ideally, she says, P2P campaigns "make them feel less isolated, part of a community, and give them a purpose."
While the P2P program is not explicitly directed at the Islamic State, many of the teams who competed focused squarely on IS online propaganda.
At the final P2P competition, the scene was like an anti-jihad science fair. Teams from around the world set up tables, backed by poster boards and covered in anti-jihad swag. Armed with tablets and LCD screens, the excited youngsters explained their marketing plan to a circulating crowd of State Department officials, journalists, and rival team members.
Most of the campaigns involved a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter handle, all organized around a discreet anti-extremism message schools chose themselves.
The team from the University of Cincinnati, for example, were shocked to find out IS made a recruitment video that repurposed images from the popular video game Grand Theft Auto. So their campaign was directed at gamers who might be vulnerable to recruitment. The Cincinnati team staged a stunt on campus: They put some game consoles into a rented bus, dubbed it a "video-game bus," and invited their peers to play some Grand Theft Auto inside. Afterwards, the students were ushered into an "impact tent" where they were exposed to some facts about IS recruitment, and the group's use of video games to entice recruits.
"Gamers can be very isolated," University of Cincinnati team member Emma Parlette said. "I think raising awareness about how vulnerable that community is will have a positive impact."
Another team, from Switzerland — which finished third overall — created an app that allows anyone to combine a photo of their own face with an image of an ancient artifact destroyed by the Islamic State. It's similar to the Facebook tool which combined photos with the French flag in the wake of the Paris attacks.
A team from University College London, one of the few groups to broaden their understanding of 'extremism' to include white supremacist and nativist strains, designed a website for mental health workers to peruse warning signs for "radicalization."
The winning team, from the Lahore Institute of Management Sciences, Pakistan's most prestigious private school, created an acronym: FATE — From Apathy to Empathy. In a marketing campaign designed around FATE, the team convened a series of events around Lahore to combat "apathy towards violence" in Pakistan. They organized concerts, and workshops, and at one point used a projector to shine statistics about violence in Pakistan on a wall in the university center.
The team even visited several underprivileged public schools in the city to hand out fliers and give a presentation. The campaign was anchored by a slick website, which encouraged people to take photos of themselves holding posters with the hashtag #ChallengeExtremism.
"We live in a country that deals with terror on a daily basis," Mashal Imran, a member of the winning LUMS team, told VICE News after winning the competition. "But there's a tremendous amount of apathy towards that violence." When asked what such a project could do to alleviate violence in the regions of Pakistan where it is most severe — the tribal region of Waziristan where US drones routinely rain down missiles, and the Pakistani military does battle with the Taliban — Imran said she would like to do some outreach there. "Of course we can't go out there yet, but it's a good idea."
"I don't see a real understanding of what drives the phenomenon in the first place."
While the P2P event inspired much enthusiasm at the State Department, some Islamic State experts are skeptical such an approach will bear real fruit. Amanda Rogers, a postdoctoral fellow with Georgia State's Transcultural Violence Initiative, i's writing a book about the Islamic State's branding efforts, and is highly skeptical of any 'counter-messaging' campaigns. "I don't doubt their good intentions," she says. ""But I don't see a real understanding of what drives the phenomenon in the first place." Rogers and the Middle East researchers she works with from other institutions circulated the State Department's flier announcing P2P, and mocked what they consider the program's "naïve earnestness."
P2P defenders counter that the initiative could raise the volume of Internet chatter around alternatives to extremism, while at the same time perhaps reaching some "fence-sitters" who are flirting with a violent path. "Sure, a brand alone is not going to change your mind, but a peer, who reaches out using social media, that's a heck of a lot more effective," argues Tony Sgro, the CEO of Edventure Partners, a private marketing company the State Department hired to help recruit the on-campus teams.
But Rogers still doubts that P2P's effort to appear "grassroots" will be able to fool young but savvy internet users. "Everything online is seen as propaganda in the jihadist space," she said. "I'm sorry, but I really think it's counterproducitve for State to try something like this — all these teams will be just branded as propagandists."
The State Department's previous efforts to 'counter extremism' have also been marked by similar debates. After 9/11, George W Bush enlisted Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive who'd previously designed campaigns for Jaguar and Coca Cola, to work with State to improve the United States' image in the Muslim world. Beers' brainchild, the "Shared Values Initiative," produced a series of propaganda videos the US aired during Ramadan in Muslim-majority countries.
But the $7.5 million campaign — which relied heavily on Muslim-Americans testifying to the tolerant climate they enjoyed back in the USA — was widely panned. After its launch, Youssef Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, compared the videos to cheesy propaganda spots produced in the 1930s "showing happy blacks in America." The program was quietly shuttered a few months after it was launched.
In 2011, Barack Obama tried his hand at counter-messaging too. He established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which is perhaps most famous for its "Think Again, Turn Away campaign" — an initiative launched in 2013 that directly engaged the Islamic State online. Though motivated by the same goals as the "Shared Values initiative," "Think Again, Turn Away" had a more punk rock ethos. Led by Alberto Fernandez, a straight-talking career diplomat and fluent Arabic speaker, the initiative tried to confront ISIS head on with edgy videos and sarcastic confrontational tweets.
"You had to go negative, that was our approach," Fernandez told VICE News. He's since left the State Department, and now works with the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a controversial NGO that was founded by former Israeli Intelligence officer Yigal Carmon, and circulates translations of media clips from other Middle Eastern countries.
Many criticized "Think Again Turn Away" for cavalierly engaging with jihadists without thinking through the consequences. Rita Katz, a terrorism expert with SITE Intelligence, wrote an influential critique of of the program, chiding Fernandez and his team. "[They] provide jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments," she argued. "Regularly engaging in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS… some of its tweets walk dangerous ethical lines."
Fernandez doesn't want to re-litigate the controversy over "Think Again, Turn Away. " "You can only explain it to stupid people so many times," he said. But he does think his efforts were more serious than what State is currently up to. Fernandez left the government last year, and declined an invitation to attend the P2P final competition last week.
"Students get an extracurricular grade, or a nice cadet gets interested in the Middle East — they aren't bad things, they just aren't sufficient," he said. "But people mistake activity for progress — the administration is just shouting: we are doing something, look, we got kids tweeting!"
Fernandez argues that counter-jihad messaging should be left up to the pros. "People who think it's the same as selling hamburgers miss something important," he said. He points to the fact that even the Islamic State's ideological predecessor and now bitter rival, al-Qaeda, "couldn't win a propaganda war against it."
Sgro, the Edventure CEO recruiting students for P2P, is much more of a happy warrior than Fernandez. Edventure has organized college students to participate in a range of very successful past campaigns: he's marketed LL Bean merchandise, promoted fracking in the Marcellus shale, and even helped design a campaign to encourage women to play soccer in Arab countries. Relying on the private sector to organize the latest anti-ISIS campaign, Sgro says, really sets the effort apart from previous iterations like "Think Again, Turn Away."
"The only way to do it is to keep the government's nose out of it," he says. "The students are going to serve a social media tsunami— it's the largest pushback against violent extremism, outside of the military." He predicts the US government will double down on programs like P2P, funneling taxpayer dollars into private companies which have advertising know-how. "Now there's a whole 'countering violent extremism industry'," he said.
Like with most marketing campaigns, Sgro, and many of the P2P teams, measured their success in social-media impressions and online- engagements: how many people looked at and interacted with their marketing product online. Over 5,000 people liked the West Point team's Facebook page, for example, and the LUMS students generated tens of thousands of online impressions with the FATE campaign.
Rogers, the IS scholar at Georgia State, isn't sure that's a great way to measure impact. "Anyone who goes online and says: 'I don't like beheading innocent civilians' — of course a lot of people are going to agree with you," she says. "I'm not 100 percent against these sorts of efforts, but I do think they are 99.9 percent worthless." For Rogers the gap between US foreign policy in the Muslim world and its message of peace undermines any anti-violent extremism propaganda campaign. "I think rhetoric will need to match policy for it to be effective," she says. "We're arming groups in Syria, we're flying drones. It's hard to take a message of peace seriously."
Though CJ, the West Point cadet, is a true believer in the P2P program, he too sees some limitations. After graduation in May, he doesn't plan to spend much time talking about jihad on Facebook. "There's a reason at the end of the day I'm going to be a field artillery officer," he said. "And not a counter messenger."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter:@AASchapiro
All photos by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State
This story was amended to rectify some of the language attributed to Georgia State University's Amanda Rogers.