Compared to the immigrant-bashing and celebrity skin that makes up most of the Daily Express’s web content, last month’s story headlined “Up to 60 girls per MONTH committing suicide following vile Islamic State abuse,” isn’t that egregious. But as Vice’s Samuel Oakford points out, it’s pretty thinly sourced, relying solely on a pseudonymous aid worker in Canada, and there’s been no follow-up reporting on the story since it was published in April.
So it’s a little strange to see the story linked to from an official State Department Twitter account. It’s not the first time the English-language account, “Think Again, Turn Away,” part of the U.S. government’s effort to combat ISIS’s online propaganda, has featured Express coverage. It also linked approvingly to this questionable story from April about ISIS locking up weak-willed British jihadists to keep them from returning home. And today, the account linked to a year-old story about ISIS ordering the genital mutilation of 2 million girls, which was pretty thoroughly debunked when it first made the rounds last summer.
Given how many well-documented instances of ISIS’s barbarity there are, it doesn’t seem necessary to promote dubious rumors. The government doesn’t enhance its credibility (which is presumably already pretty minimal with the audience its trying to reach) by endorsing easily debunkable information. It’s also discouraging to see the U.S. government endorse such shoddy work given the difficulty and risks faced by journalists trying to document what’s really happening in Syria.
A few weeks ago, the administration recently announced plans to expand the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, the agency behind the account as well efforts in several other languages and social media platforms, acknowledging that the U.S. government is being outmatched by the terrorist group’s propaganda effort. (Congress is alarmed too, with Senator Cory Booker recently expressing concern that more isn’t being done to counter ISIS’s “fancy memes.”) But much of what’s on “Think Again, Turn Away” illustrates how hard it is to wage a propaganda war against a group that has made videotaped beheadings the centerpiece of its outreach effort. The account is, after all, devoted to highlighting atrocities committed against religious minorities and the abuse of sex slaves, but sadly these may be selling points rather than deterrents for prospective ISIS members. The account also devotes an odd amount of attention to atrrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which certainly deserve condemnation but seem like an odd way to dissuade people from joining groups fighting against that regime.
The jury’s still out on whether the government’s counter-messaging—which has also including interacting with individual ISIS supporters online and promoting some of America’s own fancy memes—can be effective. Some experts think it does nothing but give Jihadists a larger stage for their arguments. It’s possible that some of the messages promoted by “Think Again, Turn Away,” including religious arguments against ISIS’s violence and stories of ISIS recruits who went on to regret it, might make a dent. But at the moment, it’s hard to imagine this effort is swaying many hearts and minds.