Students, Madison Avenue Enlisted in Messaging Fight Against ISIS

Combating Extremism With Social Media and Other Marketing Tactics

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Cadets visit BuzzFeed for tips on reaching Western 'fence-sitters.'
Cadets visit BuzzFeed for tips on reaching Western 'fence-sitters.' Credit: Courtesy BuzzFeed

Sixteen West Point cadets in their dress grays sat in a BuzzFeed conference room in New York on Nov. 3, a giant version of the site's "wtf" button stenciled on a wall in the distance. As they soaked up the frenetic energy, they hoped a little of the pop-culture media giant's viral pixie dust might drift their way.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is among 45 schools worldwide whose students are developing programs to battle extremism, but not with fighter jets or ground troops. It's a war of ideas in which participants use the same social media and other marketing tactics that have been harnessed aggressively as recruitment armaments for the Islamic State.

The academy, along with schools in places as far flung as Springfield, Mass., and Saudi Arabia, are participants this fall semester in an unprecedented private-public program called Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism, in which young people are the ones crafting plans and strategies in the hopes of saving their peers from the grips of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. They are receiving input from professionals on Madison Avenue, getting support from tech companies including Facebook and finding champions in Congress.

"Peer 2 Peer is a very promising program," said Rep. Bill Keating, Democrat of Massachusetts and ranking member on the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee. "In working to counter violent extremism, the people best positioned to communicate with at-risk youth are fellow young people."

Peer 2 Peer began in January, long before last Friday's attacks in Paris, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Now the students of Lt. Col. Bryan Price, a Ph.D. and director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, are building a social community website that he likens to Reddit and will be aimed at "Western-speaking fence-sitters." That's what brought them to BuzzFeed.

"We need to engage different ideas and different ways to do things," Mr. Price said.

When they met with BuzzFeed World Editor Hayes Brown and publicist Katie Rayford earlier this month, the group discussed the firm's metrics for success and the methods it uses to keep audiences engrossed in its content.

"Sometimes our government has difficulties in this space," Mr. Price added, calling previous government initiatives to fight terrorism "preachy" and suggesting that his college-age pupils understand how to communicate via social platforms and emerging media better than his generation.

Mr. Price explored those difficulties earlier this year in an article for the CTC Sentinel that he cowrote with Pete Favat, chief creative officer at Deutsch North America and creative director on the iconic "Truth" antismoking campaign while at Arnold Worldwide, who also visited West Point to speak. "Previous attempts to incorporate Madison Avenue-style branding into the U.S. government's public diplomacy took a conventional advertising approach that tried to sell America and our value system to the masses in the Middle East, with lackluster if not counterproductive results," they wrote. "A counter-industry campaign like 'Truth,' on the other hand, aimed at dissuading future foreign fighters, would not aim to sell a Western alternative to the Islamic State. It would instead attempt to 'unsell' what the Islamic State and other groups are advertising."

The Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism initiative has grown from 23 participating schools in its first spring semester. Four federal agencies have pooled funds to support it: the National Counterterrorism Center and the departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense. Together, they've spent around $1 million on the project over its first two semesters.

The program gives $2,000 each to colleges where select students are tasked to conjure campaigns to steer potential recruits away from the Islamic State. The idea is grounded in the recognition that preventing recruitment by extremists will take something other than a typical top-down government initiative, and could be better achieved by people the same age as the ones who might be lured by the dark side.

"The way to do this isn't some big-budget, federally funded wag-the-dog-type approach. Guerrilla-marketing tactics are needed in this space now more than ever," said George Selim, director of the newly created Department of Homeland Security Office for Community Partnerships, who helped spearhead Peer 2 Peer while he was still director for community partnerships for the National Security Council.

For support, Mr. Selim brought in EdVenture Partners, a 25-year-old private company that connects corporations, trade groups and government entities with college faculty and students who compete to develop campaigns. Through EdVenture Partners, students have created work on behalf of L.L. Bean, Citibank and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, among others.

When the Peer 2 Peer idea sprouted in the fall of 2014, said Mr. Selim, "We started seeing ISIS really kind of take off using a social media, branding, marketing-type effort."

The Islamic State has become known for sophisticated recruitment tactics, some inspired by corporate marketing efforts, including cross-media campaigns with gruesome digital video, long-form film, social media and even a glossy print periodical called "Dabiq." Peer 2 Peer aims to fight fire with fire by employing some of the same methods used by the extremists.

"The key here is that there's no website or hashtag campaign that will prevent a young person from being recruited by any type of violent extremist group," Mr. Selim said.

Facebook is on board as part of an effort to facilitate social media training. Though the company wouldn't reveal how much money it is donating to Peer 2 Peer, Monika Bickert, head of global product policy for Facebook, said it will sponsor three teams and their travel to Washington, D.C., to present their initiatives. "We will also provide additional resources, including training sessions on creating counter-narratives and leveraging Facebook to get their message out," she added.

Earlier this year, a 22-year-old man living in Queens, N.Y., was arrested for trying to join the Islamic State; another young Queens man was charged with planning to set off a bomb in support of the terrorist group. It's there in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world, where New York University has set its Peer 2 Peer project, 7 Train Stop. Inspired by the 7 subway line that takes passengers from Manhattan through Queens, the campaign is in development by students in New York University's conflict resolution course.

The class has begun storyboarding short videos that will feature members of Nigerian, Mexican and Egyptian communities in Queens sharing their stories about integrating as immigrants, said Colette Mazzucelli, professor of international relations at NYU. The videos will be presented in a mobile app featuring a map that highlights communities along the 7 line.

It's not just international relations or political science students that Peer 2 Peer aims to attract. When Melissa Burnett, professor of marketing at Missouri State University, was asked by EdVenture Partners to find participants for the first spring semester program, she looked to students with marketing, business, PR, design and art backgrounds.

"In my mind I'm going, 'OK, so you would like us to come up with a way to fight ISIS,'" she recalled. "It really did kind of raise the hair on my arm, but in a good way." In the end, she corralled seniors and MBA students, who set out to develop a campaign to combat Islamic State recruitment. The group of around 15 students formed an ad agency-like structure with people heading marketing strategy, research and branding. "We literally called a couple of them president and vice president," said Ms. Burnett.

The team came up with a campaign themed One95, for the 195 countries across the globe. Like many of the other competing efforts, One95 features digital and social media components: a website; a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; original videos; and even a mascot. But the key piece was an educational curriculum aimed at Generation Z and tested at Allen Village School, a Kansas City, Mo., charter school. It encourages seventh and eighth graders to consider stories of real-life encounters with extremism, and to discuss their own approaches to dialogue on related issues.

Among 10 finalists, Missouri State won first place, scoring a $5,000 prize alongside second- and third-place schools, respectively, Curtin University of Perth, Australia, and Mount Royal University of Calgary, Alberta.

Sources in the State Department and Homeland Security declined to discuss how the campaigns devised by Peer 2 Peer participants might reflect or be incorporated into other existing counterterrorism or Islamic State-related initiatives. Mr. Selim did note, however, "We're actively working through how to implement the winning program from Missouri State."

Just don't expect Peer 2 Peer to become operationalized as a government program in the traditional sense. It is more likely that its best results will be implemented and supported by outside organizations already working in hot spots for violent extremism. "The right thing for us to do is expose these programs to kind of a market of people such as philanthropic organizations and NGOs," he added. "We think that gives it the best longevity and shelf life."

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