CIA black sites. “Extraordinary rendition.” The PATRIOT Act. Massive NSA surveillance. The 2003 invasion of Iraq. Abu Ghraib. Torture. Religious and racial profiling. FBI entrapment. Drones, “kill lists” and civilian casualties. “Terror Tuesdays.”
Whatever the successes of US public diplomacy since the attacks of September 11, 2001, they pale in comparison to the cavalcade of scandals. And all these foreign policy “missteps” or manifestations of “imperial hubris”—take your pick—predate the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, the latest fixation of State Department attempts at counter-radicalization through messaging.
Against the backdrop of blunders, the State Department’s anti-ISIS campaign is woefully anemic. “Think Again, Turn Away,” the social media platform for public diplomacy, maintains accounts on popular sites including YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, Ask.fm and Twitter. Not simply counterproductive, this social media engagement manages to combine the worst features of post-September 11 foreign policy—ignorance, arrogance and refusal to engage with legitimate grievances.
The ask.fm page displays a stunning lack of coherence that is unintentionally hilarious. In this social networking space notorious for travel advice from ISIS affiliates, the State Department’s account boasts a whopping 40 “likes,” and appears to have been abandoned in January. Among other cringe-worthy answers to anonymous queries, the page routinely responds to mundane questions such as “What language do you speak?” and “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” with photos of desserts coated in the American flag, and a screaming eagle meme that only Stephen Colbert could love.
Answers to more substantive questions suffer from the same approach. A user points out the widely shared perception of Western hypocrisy as a driver of radicalization, citing drone strikes and blind support for Israel. Rather than confront the merits of such points, “Think Again, Turn Away” recycles the standard evasive charge (or schoolyard insult), “Liar!” “They [sic] best recruiters for the jiahdis [sic] are the lying media propagandists they have hired, who in their own words have lied to gain supporters: ‘They will follow anything you tell them. Their brains are washed, we talk to them about religion, paradise and virgins.… Almost all of it was lies, exaggerations. For example, we claimed other groups raped women. That wasn’t true.’ But as the world has already seen in Mosul and elsewhere, the people ISIS is ‘liberating’ want nothing to do with that terrorist organization.”
“Think Again, Turn Away” is not just embarrassing but terrifying in the scope of its failure. Its extensive Twitter profile consists mostly of headlines culled from tabloids and government outlets. Digital outreach consists of the trolling of extremists—with the latter term lumping together such organizationally and geographically distinct groups as ISIS, al-Shabaab, Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. The common denominator is Muslim radicalization—no doubt lending credence to the perception that America is at war with Islam. As with ask.fm, the Twitter account managers regularly adopt the assumption that negative comments indicate sympathy for ISIS and like-minded groups—and could not possibly come from anyone else.
The Twitter account, in addition, often features horror stories that have been debunked—such as reports that ISIS began to mandate female circumcision within the territory under its control. Regardless of ISIS’ demonstrable brutality, the failure to fact-check such allegations gives the public diplomacy campaign an appearance of unseemly titillation, if not outright propaganda. Worse are tweets such as: “Dutch #ISIS suicide bomber targets Iraqi police station—another foreigner terrorizing locals.” Issued by the very same government that sought to subdue Iraqis through “shock and awe,” this phrase portrays the United States as downright detached from reality.
Recent posts to the Twitter feed highlight clerical rulings—from the Saudi Arabian establishment—that condemn ISIS as sinful and illegitimate. But since the anti-Soviet jihad in 1980s Afghanistan, state-sanctioned religious leaders have commanded little respect among extremist militants. Although both ISIS and al-Qaeda have solicited “friendly” religious scholars for favorable fatwas, ISIS propaganda videos of late have far exceeded Osama bin Laden’s group in laying claim to independent interpretation of one’s “obligation” to fight—going so far as to argue that a believer should “forget everything” and simply “read the ayat [verses] of jihad.”
It’s difficult, in fact, to locate a nation in the Muslim world with religious spokesmen more openly despised by jihadi sympathizers than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yet irony dies another death for those of us who are far from well-disposed toward ISIS: Here is the State Department arguing by the authority of a close ally that executes religious minorities by crucifixion and beheading against a terrorist group that executes religious minorities by crucifixion and beheading. Throwing this juxtaposition into a truly surreal light, female ISIS members resident in Iraq and Syria riposte with photographs of vehicles, driver’s licenses and captions mocking Saudi Arabia’s notorious driving ban: “Jealous, Saudi women?”
The State Department’s pathetic efforts at countering extremism online somehow prove worse than no messaging whatsoever. The disastrous performance recalls the short-lived tenure of advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who spearheaded the Shared Values Initiative in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Intended to “sell America,” the Initiative provoked a backlash across the Muslim world and was discontinued barely a month after launch. “Think Again, Turn Away” should also be yanked from the shelves for flaws in manufacture. As any marketing expert can attest, a product that does not fulfill the advertising pitch will ultimately fail to find a consumer base. Perhaps it’s time for Brand America to consider a recall.