Use Social Media to Combat Terrorism

The United States, which invented social media, is now at the mercy of physical attack inspired by social media.

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Palestinian Hamas supporters burn U.S. and Israeli flags and an effigy of Morris Sadek during a protest in Gaza City on Sept. 14, 2012.

The United States, which invented social media, is now at the mercy of physical attack inspired by social media. What will it take for us to get into this game?

Friday morning, my son had to join hordes of other college students in evacuating his university campus. The reason? A phoned-in bomb threat from someone purporting to be from al Qaeda.

From the killing of a U.S. ambassador and embassy staff in Libya, to the routine (but in my view, necessary) self-harassment of the Transportation Security Administration, we are reminded 11 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11 that the threat of radical Islamic extremists is with each of us personally and will be with us for decades to come.

[11 Years Later: Remembering the 9/11 Victims]

The most remarkable thing about this crisis has been the apparent inability of the United States to effectively use social media to dampen the fires of extremism. We are good on hardware, on erecting Jersey barriers around federal office buildings, and dispatching drones to remote corners of the world. We are completely out of our depth in what you would expect the United States to be best at—the soft arts of persuasion, propaganda, and image building.

This failure of imagination from American leaders in both parties is staggering.

We saw in the Arab Spring the power of social media to bring down governments.

We saw, with a poorly produced fragment of a film posted on YouTube, how our country can be plunged into a crisis by any American moron with a camera. And rest assured, in a nation of 320 million people, there will always be such a moron.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

We saw, in the fires of Benghazi and Cairo, how a film that debases a great world religion can find an effective agent for promotion throughout the Middle East. That agent, of course, is al Qaeda, which likely scours the Web for just such any anti-Islamic diatribes produced by any non-Muslim—Americans in particular. For faithful Muslims, spotlighting these posts is a painful example of the Streisand Effect—the tendency of efforts to counter or suppress objectionable Internet posts to instead call attention to them and promote them.

But al Qaeda, of course, wants to invoke the Streisand Effect. It wants to create pain. It wants to spotlight and intensify any source of friction between the United States and Islam.

In short, the terrorists have been successful in focusing social media as a weapon.

What has been the American response?

Articulate statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indignant statements put out by our embassies. In-depth news reports on Voice of America. All of these are executed with great professionalism. None of them, however, has a prayer of countering the power of something like the "Innocence of Muslims."

What we need, instead, is a U.S. effort to develop effective social media responses in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

[Photos: Protesters Attack U.S. Embassy in Yemen]

This effort will only work if personally blessed by the president and secretary of state. But it cannot—it must not—be a government program. This has been tried before. When the Bush administration brought an ad executive into the State Department to manage the U.S. brand, it launched an image ad campaign in the Muslim world—during the holy month of Ramadan.

Government processes are simply too brittle, labyrinthine, and slow-moving to achieve the quick and agile response we need to a social media crisis. Either the product will too newsy (Voice of America's approach, which is fine for educated elites) or it will be too tapioca (the State Department's favorite dessert).

What is needed is vivid, powerful, compelling, and funny media that only a private organization can produce, funded by U.S. corporations affected by international tension and a few patriotic big donors.

[See political cartoons on Afghanistan]

It must be overseen by a board of governors drawn from the highest ranks of media, CEOs, diplomats and U.S. senators, and staffed by a mix of top-notch reputation and messaging experts who work hand-in-glove with area experts to get the nuances of these messages just right.

It must work in a quick, rapid-fire tempo that no government agency can match. It must be allowed to make a few mistakes before getting it right. And it must do something that no government agency could ever do—deploy humor as a weapon to ridicule al Qaeda.

This is not another good idea. It is a necessary project that must get underway now to protect the United States and our people.

Who could get this ball rolling?

If Hillary Clinton is, as she often says, looking forward to leaving as secretary of state, starting such an organization would be a worthy and great private-sector retirement project for her.

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