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The US State Department Tweeted Photos of Dead Islamic State Fighters — Then Changed Its Mind

Lines were blurred as a Twitter account run by the US State Department tweeted — and then deleted — a photo of Islamic State fighters killed in air strikes.

by Alice Speri
Sep 26 2014, 10:35pm

Screengrab via YouTube/US Department of State

The US government's attempt to counter the tone of the Islamic State by emulating it might have gone a little overboard this time. 

A Twitter account run by the US State Department went a little rogue on Thursday, tweeting a photo of four dead men it identified as Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) fighters, and boasting the deed as a "major step towards getting job done."

The rather tasteless tweet — more what you'd expect to find on militants' own gruesome accounts than on an official one run by the US government — was promptly removed with no explanation, but not before the Telegraph snapped a screen shot of it.

It was not clear what prompted the change of heart by the account's handlers, and the State Department did not respond to VICE News' questions about that.

The tweet in question came from the Think Again Turn Away account, which the State Department tersely describes as "some truths about terrorism."

ISIS fighters and their friends are total social media pros. Read more here.

The account is run by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), a unit of the State Department that attempts to keep up with and counter the dozens of social media accounts of fundamentalists and their fan boys — often engaging in Twitter battles with them.

That's the same group that brought you Welcome to the "Islamic State" land, a spoof video mimicking — or mocking — the Islamic State's recruiting rhetoric, complete with graphic crucifixions, beheadings, and suicide bombings.

Since its creation, the CSCC has put out thousands of tweets, and hundreds of videos, mostly in Arabic, Urdu, and Somali.

"Their office has been at it for a couple of years and they have been sending out tens of thousands of tweets and hundreds of videos," Stevan Weine, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who conducts research on countering violent extremism, told VICE News. "As I understand the overall purpose of their efforts is to contest the space and change the conversation and unnerve the enemy."

"They see it as necessary to engage, not to have terrorist organizations have free rein over the public discourse," he added. "That being said, this walks the line. I think the issue here is: when you show violent images, in order to frighten or to scare someone off, you can't guarantee that that's going to be the response, you risk inciting other kinds of responses. The risk is that you could inflame and cause more resentment and anger."

Some have described the State Department's program as part of a government effort to speak to the same youth groups that the Islamic State is potentially recruiting, but Weine suggested that the main point is to make sure that militant groups don't end up dominating the public discourse.

The US will recruit teachers and community leaders to fight the Islamic State right at home. Read more here.

"They don't want only the happy and threatening videos of ISIS to be the last word, they want to show the weakness and the vulnerability of ISIS and that the image being presented of happy jihad is not the reality over there," he said. 

"But I'm concerned about the effects on potential recruits, which I think is a very specific group of folks who are not necessarily what they have in mind. The risk is that images of dead bodied that presumably come from US or allies' airstrikes could come off as dehumanizing, and I think there's a risk that the satirical tone of these videos — not of this tweet but of the other video — could come off as some kind of mockery. I know that's not why they did it, but you never know who's listening and how they are going to respond."

The Welcome to the "Islamic State" land video won plenty of criticism at home, with Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, a for-profit company that studies jihadi extremists' behavior online calling it "embarrassing" and "distressing" in an article in TIME earlier this month.

"This outreach by the US government is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments — regularly engaging in petty disputes with fighters and supporters of groups like IS, al Qaeda, and al-Shabaab, and arguing over who has killed more people while exchanging sarcastic quips," she added.

The government, critics said, was essentially lowering itself to the "terrorists" level.

The latest misfired tweet is yet another sign of the potential minefield the US government is facing in its attempt to keep up with social media savvy, millennial jihadists around the world.

It wants to speak like them — if not directly to them — using their imagery and snark without actually forgetting its own limits. And hopefully without enflaming their hatred even further.

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That's a tricky game of line blurring — something the State Department has recognized in the past.

"I worry about it all the time. Snarky is good but you can take it too far," Alberto Fernandez, the head of the CSCC, told the Telegraph in May. "What we're doing is very different from anything else in US government public communications. Our goal is not to make people love the US. Our goal is to make al Qaeda look bad."

But trying to make its enemy look "bad" can reflect just as poorly on the US government itself.

"I think there's a balance to be struck, and the concern people might have is whether this goes too far," Weine said. "I think they are walking a line trying to find a balance between being engaging and catching people's attention, and not being offensive. That's a tough line to walk, especially when there are so many sensitivities."

Judging from the removed tweet, the State Department might have recognized that this time, it went just too far.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

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