CHICAGO—While the American military is bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, there's another conflict raging with the extremist group: over the Twitter feeds of thousands of Muslim teenagers.
ISIS has proved adept at using social media to spread propaganda and attract young people. We've seen headline after headline about youth in the U.S. and around the world—both Muslim and non-Muslim—being recruited to extremist groups on social media.
The Obama administration has committed to fighting back digitally against the ideology of ISIS and its ilk. “We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion, and we especially need to do it online,” President Obama said in February.
But so far, there's little doubt that ISIS is winning on the social media front. And some Muslims worry that there's a fine line between the U.S. government helping kids avoid extremism and arresting them for falling prey to it.
Creating counter-narratives on social media is a powerful strategy to fighting extremist recruiting, said Farah Pandith, who was the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. State Department. Now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, she's traveled around the world meeting young Muslims and studying how ISIS and other terrorist groups are recruiting them.
"Extremist ideology is going viral," Pandith said in a speech at Chicago Ideas Week on Wednesday. "We need to approach the ideological war with the appropriate resources and respect as we do the physical war, devoting ourselves to a strategy of hard and soft power."
Most teens are recruited through “patient one-on-one coaxing” by ISIS supporters around the world, she said. Extremist recruiters find young people looking to understand Islam and then form online relationships with them.
Some Muslim young people in western countries are vulnerable to this kind of recruitment because they're going through a kind of identity crisis about their religion, Pandith said. Muslim kids grow up seeing an onslaught of headlines, TV shows and movies portraying people who share their faith as terrorists. Being a teenager sucks for everyone, but especially so if you and your family are discriminated against every day. Many kids are left wondering what their religion means.
For alienated young Muslims, extremism "fills the void by becoming a lifestyle brand with the same cultural significance of brands like Apple or Nike," Pandith said. “Islam is punk rock, the headscarf is liberating, and beards are sexy.”
Pandith said the U.S. government and nonprofits should do more to support local, grassroots efforts by Muslims around the world to send a different message of what Islam is. They might help amplify the voices of a Pakistani comic artist creating web comics encouraging young Muslims to think critically about Islamic ideology. Or Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago who created a WhatsApp account that young people can reach out to anonymously with questions about their faith and identity. Or British Muslims who started a hashtag campaign telling people that what ISIS does is #NotInMyName.
So far, though, efforts like these can't stand up to ISIS supporters, who have created tens of thousands of social media accounts. One example of a positive social media effort Pandith cited in her speech was a group called Muslim Frank Talk, a Facebook page designed to help young Muslims in South Africa talk about identity and religion. She didn't mention that it has only 11 likes and a single post from 2013.
The State Department runs a Twitter account that tweets at ISIS supporters and encourages them to "turn away" from extremism. But in many cases, it has ended up getting into disputes with ISIS-sympathetic accounts about whether extremists or the U.S. have killed more people. "This outreach by the U.S. government is not only ineffective, but also provides jihadists with a stage to voice their arguments," Rita Katz, an analyst who studies online extremists, wrote in Time. The account is "embarrassing," she said.
Pandith said grassroots actions would be more successful. “I’m not talking about engaging in a war on Twitter," she said. "We must drown out the voices of extremists by supporting positive new concepts, causes, and charismatic leaders in which the youth can believe."
Many Muslim leaders, however, worry that the government efforts to combat extremism might be yet another post-9/11 attempt at surveilling and profiling Muslim communities. “For the government to offer us services based on concerns of violent extremism in our community…seems to reinforce the same stereotype that society holds of American-Muslims: that they or Islam are inherently violent,” Yusufi Vali, the executive director of Boston's biggest mosque, wrote in a letter to the Obama administration earlier this year.
And even as Obama and Pandith talk about empowering young Muslims, the federal government is arresting young people who fall prey to ISIS recruiters. Ali Amin, a 17-year-old in Virginia, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in August for tweeting in support of ISIS and helping a friend travel to Syria to join the group.
More than 60 people like Amin—many in their late teens or early twenties—have been arrested and charged with supporting ISIS since last year. About 80% of those people were recruited by social media, according to prosecutors.
"Extremist ideology must be treated like a virus that infects individuals and spreads to entire communities, shattering lives and destroying families," Pandith said. "We must look at this the way we would look at any other pandemic diseases."
Univision, one of Fusion's parent companies, is one of the sponsors of Chicago Ideas Week.
Sujay Kumar contributed reporting.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.