President Obama’s new anti-ISIS messaging czar Michael Lumpkin announced the Center for Global Engagement this week, formed by Executive Order. The new government body is aimed at modifying the conversation around terrorism, extremism, and the West’s overall profile.
The main goal of the group is ostensibly to pick moderate, or at least non-violent, leaders, groups, and personalities and support them with invisible funding. The idea would be that the money comes with no strings attached — that’s what makes this different, that it’s a method of supporting existing discourse so it becomes more dominant, not planting desired discourse in the hope that it will find any foothold at all.
The new branch of government will also employ data analysts and private companies to collect social media data for analysis, or at least sell what they’ve already collected. The companies and skill sets at work here would be normally put to use to help a business find customers. Instead, the hope is to head off extremism by finding similarly insightful patterns in people’s activities. The government also contacted social media companies about what voluntary cooperation they could expect, though that’s a touchy subject in Silicon Valley these days. The overall approach to finding targets for intervention has been described as broadly like how Amazon targets customers — but as virtually every large scale effort begins to involve data science in some way, those sorts of connections are getting a bit more tenuous.
The initiative is distinct from past projects because it is aimed not at countering ISIS messages with US government ones, but at amplifying genuine, moderate messages throughout the Islamic cyber-world. Lumpkin told the Daily Beast that he sees this as a necessary evolution in the face of terrorist info-tech: “You need a network to defeat a network, so we’re going to take a network approach to our messaging.”
Once their team of analysts has crunched the data and identified people likely to be moving toward fundamentalism, the plan is to message these people somehow. These could be fairly subtle or even misleading interactions, or the person could simply be pointed out to these trusted local partners for more organic intervention. Most likely, though, it will take the form of a sort of truth-bomb, containing facts and images that contradict ISIS’ many claims about its own policies and actions. You’ll never be able to convince true hardcore believers who like the reality of ISIS, but the theory is that most people going toward fundamentalism are at least somewhat naive before they arrive.
In principle, this should allow the message to be authentic enough to appeal to a large proportion of locals. These messages can then be slightly amplified, given better production values, and generally made to seem more legitimate. They’ll secretly give money to everyone from mullahs to radio hosts to writers to activist groups to ISIS defectors — but the more interesting part of the announcement has to do with their negative interventions.
The other unfortunate reality is that, in some parts of the world, everything the US touches is suspect. So, in this the US runs a great risk: If they can’t deliver on the promised anonymity of their support system, the very support they provide to moderates could end up tanking an individual or group rather than helping it. Even without concrete information about which groups are and are not receiving funding, the mere fact that we know the US is supporting someone could end up hurting the credibility of moderate voices overall. The accusation of being a US puppet is already over-used, and over-credited, and that’s without a public executive order telling the government to engage in this sort of thing.
As with so much of American security these days, the responsibility ultimately rests with info-science, and runs at least partly afoul of the privacy agenda. There’s currently only statements about the collection of advertising-style data, obtained legally and relatively openly. But remember that information sharing is getting far more open in the US government, and the Executive Order itself spends quite a bit of time going on about inter-agency cooperation. NSA’s ability to squeeze juice from private social media accounts will be too attractive to pass up, and there’s every reason to think that it will be available.
So, remember the name: the Center for Global Engagement, and its temporary buddy-project, the Global Engagement Center Coordination Office (GECCO). They may just be in the news again in a few years’ time.