In the wake of the tragic and bloody terrorist attacks in Paris, presidential candidates must now face the recurring question: How would you counter the rise of ISIS if you were president? For Ben Carson, the answer is easy: Follow the lead of the hacktivist group Anonymous, and use "our strengths in media production and messaging" to stop ISIS. And, well, that's pretty much it.
Carson, who is currently polling in second place behind Donald Trump in the Republican race, argues in a new op-ed in the Washington Post that the key to defeating ISIS is merely stepping up America's propaganda fight against the terrorist group online.
The crux of Carson's plan is to convince "moderate Kurds, Syrian and Iraqis" that ISIS is a threat to them (as if they were not already aware), and "equip them with the means to convey that message to their people." That, he writes, means launching a "multi-pronged communications strategy," along with "cutting off traditional access routes to social media for radical Islamist groups."
"The hacker group Anonymous has already provided a model for accomplishing this."
To do that, he says, the US should block and take down more ISIS accounts on Twitter and other social media networks."The hacker group Anonymous has already provided a model for accomplishing this," Carson writes. "We should use every tool at our disposal to root out and destroy the global online recruitment efforts of these extremist organizations. We must not allow their macabre murder videos and threats to be promoted anywhere."
In his op-ed, however, Carson fails to mention that for all of Anonymous' grandiose declarations of war and all the media coverage it's received, the hacktivist group doesn't actually have much to show for the year-long fight against ISIS it's already been waging.
As terrorism expert J.M. Berger told Motherboard, while their efforts may have had some minor impacts—Anonymous hackers perhaps helped stop the network of ISIS accounts on social media from growing, though many of those accounts still exist—they haven't done much to impede the terrorist group's online activities. Once Twitter started clamping down on them last year, ISIS fanboys and pseudo-official accounts simply moved to other social media networks, such as the Russian VK.com and the messaging app Telegram.
Moreover, US officials have actually found the presence of some of those accounts to be very valuable for intelligence-gathering, as I reported with my former colleague Colin Daileda over at Mashable last year. At the time, US officials had approached a major American social media company, and explicitly asked them to keep accounts used by recruiters and propagandists online. If Carson's plan were to be carried out, all that potential intelligence would be gone.
Carson's plan would likely make no major difference on the ground—and little difference on the internet, either
It's also worth noting that the US government already has a social media propaganda effort engaged with ISIS. It's called "Think Again, Turn Away," and consists of a Twitter account that tweets "some truths about terrorism," and essentially tries to troll terrorists. Experts, however, have called it "an embarrassment" and it is often easily out-trolled by ISIS fanboys.
Carson's plan, as outlined in the editorial, would likely make no major difference on the ground—and little difference on the internet, either. Carson essentially wants to recycle the US government's limp social media propaganda push, mix it with Anonymous's dubiously effective hacktivist witch hunt, and hope this cocktail somehow disrupts a complex, wide-ranging, and violent conflict.
What's perhaps more worrisome, however, is that this may actually be one of the less crazy ideas from a candidate who said Jews could've stopped the Holocaust if only they had had guns.