WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government, acknowledging its limited success in combating Islamic extremist messaging, is recruiting tech companies, community organizations and educational groups to take the lead in disrupting online radicalization.
The change in strategy, which took a step forward on Wednesday when the Justice Department convened a meeting with social media firms including Facebook Inc, Twitter and Alphabet Inc's Google , comes despite what critics say is scant evidence on the effectiveness of such efforts.
The meeting was “a recognition that the government is ill-positioned and ill-equipped to counter ISIS online,” Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, said after attending the event, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The federal government is not best placed to counter extremist online recruitment efforts with messaging of its own, said George Selim, director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office that coordinates the government’s “countering violent extremism” (CVE) activities.
The goal now, he said, is to help “communities and young people to amplify their own messages.”
Those messages stem from so-called "counter-narrative" programs underway at schools and community groups that have varying degrees of government support, according to government officials and private sector experts.
Past campaigns by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to thwart extremist propaganda globally were widely regarded as too reliant on fear-based rhetoric and graphic imagery to be effective.
But whether the new joint effort with the private sector will fare better remains unclear, say experts in countering extremism.
The Obama administration has had an uneasy relationship with Silicon Valley in recent years. Twitter and other tech firms have been reticent to appear too cozy with authorities on how they manage their content, though most have cautiously drifted toward being more compliant over the past year.
Facebook last year partnered with British research group Demos to examine the impact of "counter-messaging" against hate speech in four European countries.
The study, released in October, concluded it was “extremely difficult to calculate with any degree of precision” whether such efforts have a real impact on long-term attitudes or offline behavior.
“You don’t necessarily know if something is going to change the way someone thinks offline, but we can measure whether somebody shares that content or interacts with it,” Monica Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management, told Reuters.
One of the new programs, funded partly by Facebook and multiple government agencies, underwrites “peer-to-peer” (P2P) college courses that teach students to create their own anti-militant messaging.
Facebook declined to say how much it was investing in the program, though Selim described Facebook’s overall investment in CVE initiatives as “very significant.”
Fatemah Yousef, a student at Kuwait Gulf University for Science and Technology student, flew to Washington this month to join a Facebook event showcasing counter-messaging projects created by students.
Yousef, 23, exhibited a blog that encourages Kuwaiti students to denounce violent extremism on social media.
Another P2P finalist, a group from the University of Arkansas, produced a video showing graphic Islamic State executions set to heavy metal band Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”
Half way through, the video switched to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as captions urged viewers to “raise a flag” against extremism.
After viewing the video, a judge in the contest told the students that “probably about 90 to 95 percent” of the images in the video had been used in violent extremist recruitment videos.
“We’ve had this problem in other places where people try to instill fear in target audiences by showing all this mayhem, but it actually does the reverse with some,” said the judge, Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House director for community partnerships.
Another effort is underway at WORDE, a Muslim educational organization in Maryland, which last week launched a campaign that aims to refute Islamic State messages through catchy videos and live broadcasts of discussions about mainstream Islam.
WORDE plans to use software or survey questions to gauge the impact of its new counter-messaging campaign, said Hedieh Mirahmadi, the group’s president.
"Everybody creates stuff but doesn't really care about whether it's connected to the science of evaluations,” Mirahmadi told Reuters.
Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker told Reuters that he is working on two bills -- one of which has already passed committee in the Senate -- that would give DHS the authority to fund more college classes and research on how to best counter Islamic State’s slick propaganda campaigns.
“Government messages do not prove to have that type of virality,” Booker said.
The P2P program is the only private sector counter-messaging initiative that acknowledges receiving training from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but a senior FBI official said the agency provides information to other non-governmental groups whose CVE-related work may include counter-messaging.
Some efforts avoid federal funding altogether.
Mohamed Magid, a Virginia imam who has counseled several youth targeted by Islamic State recruiters, leads an Islamic foundation soliciting donations to create a 24/7 online operation that would answer each Islamic State video with peaceful messages.
“If we say this is a government thing, it might not have legitimacy,” Magid said. “We’re challenging the Muslim community to say, on this, yourself, respond to the challenge.”
Reporting by Julia Harte and Dustin Volz. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Stuart Grudgings.