On Thinking Again and Turning Away

The past two years have seen a flurry of editorials, newspaper articles and official reports detailing the manner in which ISIS uses social media to recruit young members, manage its global image and disseminate its message of hate to a global audience. The underlying assumption of these articles and reports is that tweets can kill.

Recent months have also seen a new escalation in violence between Israel and Palestine. Over the past 100 days, dozens of terror attacks have taken place in Israel, many of them perpetrated by teenagers. The Israeli government has stated adamantly that these attacks are the result of online incitement campaigns delivered via social media.

In an attempt to counter both ISIS and Palestinian incitement, Israel and the US have taken to social media. The US has opted to take the approach of targeting by launching the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. Israel, on the other hand, has taken that of tailoring.

Between Targeting & Tailoring

Targeting campaigns tend to address large and heterogeneous groups. Such is the case with the message of “Don’t Drink and Drive”, or “Just Say No to Drugs”. Such messages are meant to appeal to society as a whole, be it young drivers or older and more experienced ones. Tailoring, on the other hand, includes campaigns that aim to change the behavior of a specific group while taking into account the unique characteristics of that group such as age, language, culture and motivation for acting a certain way. An anti-smoking campaign aimed at teenagers, for example, would take into account the role of peer pressure as opposed to one aimed at older adults that may focus on a parent’s desire to watch his child grow up.

The difference between the two approaches is not merely philosophical. Branding, marketing and even health studies have all demonstrated that tailored campaigns are much more effective in reaching and influencing the behavior of people.

Between the US and Israeli approaches

Launched in 2013, the “Think Again Turn Away” twitter page has attracted some 25 thousand followers. This is a surprisingly small number when compared to other twitter channels managed by the US State Department which boat hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers.

The content shared on this channel seems to focus on three arguments. The first is that ISIS is distorting the Muslim faith and that it kills Muslims indiscriminately. The second is that ISIS is ineffective in promoting prosperity in areas under its control and the third is that the appeal of ISIS is based on lies (see examples below).

While these messages may all be true, one has to wonder how effective this out-reach program is given the fact that it seems to target all and any individuals active online rather than those likely to join ISIS.. These include Muslim youngsters in Europe and the Middle East. The State Department’s targeted “one size fits all” approach is best demonstrated by the fact that the all content shared on this channel is in English rather than Arabic or French or Italian.

Moreover, there seems to be no attempt to address the different motivations people have for joining ISIS. For young teenagers in Europe, this may be the result of socioeconomic status, lack of integration in society and anger given growing anti-Muslim sentiment. For youngsters living in the Middle East, joining ISIS may be the only way to stay alive given the disintegration of local governments and the outbreak of civil wars.

As opposed to the State Department, Israel’s recent online efforts seem to include some elements of tailoring. The most recent example is the video shown below shared on the Israeli MFA’s Arabic Facebook page. The video, which is in Arabic rather than English, asks viewers whose side they are on- that of democracy or that which stifles political opposition; that which respects men and women or that which oppresses women; that which sanctifies life or death?

This video seems to draw a line in the sand asking Arab viewers to choose sides. Yet more profoundly, it echoes the sentiments of democracy and the Arab Spring which five year ago this month filled the region, and the world, with hope. Finally, the video also features a young Arab female, one which is similar to those that ISIS recruits. This video therefor seems to be tailored to the cultural, historical and personal narratives of its target audience while also evoking a message of hope that counters that of hate spread by ISIS.

While this video has been greeted both positively and negatively by the MFA’s Arab followers, it has already been viewed by more than one million viewers in the Arab world far surpassing the reach of the Think Again Turn Away campaign.

To be effective, all those countering online incitement must make the transition from targeting to tailoring while also taking on the task of engaging online with target audiences.

In its present format, the Think Again campaign is unlikely to prevent anyone from joining ISIS. Yet that might not be its true goal. It is possible that this campaign targets domestic audiences who fear that the US administration is not doing enough to repel the specter of ISIS.

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