New Strategy in the War on Terror: Trolling Jihadi Forums

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 19 2012 6:00 PM

New Strategy in the War on Terror: Trolling Jihadi Forums

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American-born al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn appears in a video posted on the Internet in 2007

Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department wants to deploy a cruel new weapon in the War on Terror: the Internet troll.

Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports that a project called Viral Peace will use harassment and irrelevant comments—the troll’s favorite tools—to disrupt jihadi forums and online communities. Eventually, the hope is, this tactic will hurt Islamist extremists’ virtual recruiting. “Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage,” writes Ackerman.

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Viral Peace creator Shahed Amanullah told Wired he hopes to utilize “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” This past spring, Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere started Trolling 101 training, under the premise that Muslims will know best how to agitate the extremist communities. After all, trolling is a subtle art.

But could the same tactics used by belligerent adolescents on Xbox Live wreck enough virtual havoc as to combat the spread of terrorism? Almost anyone who has spent time in commenting forums knows that the No. 1 rule is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” It stands to reason that even a jidhai knows to simply ignore a troll and move on, rather than engaging.

One trolling expert—yes, there is such a thing—is skeptical of the project. "The U.S. government is not going to get anywhere by flame trolling Jihads,” professor Jonathan Bishop told me in an email. Bishop is the co-founder of Crocels Trolling Academy, a nonprofit research initiative at Wales’ Swansea University that studies the psychology and effects of trolling. Bishop believes that this novel strategy may end up backfiring: "The U.S. should expect Jihads to 'fight flame with flame' or even worse 'fight flame with firearms,’ “ he said.

Wired notes that the program has yet to identify which online communities to target, or how to actually troll them. Amanullah believes it is best to leave these decisions up to their cyberbullies-in-training, who will know their region’s internet behavior better than any State Department official.

Additionally, the project only has “mere thousands of dollars in annual seed money so far.”

That said, how much money does it really take to be annoying on the Internet?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

David Sydiongco is a Future Tense intern.