The Message War

Counterterrorism strategy now includes everything from trolling on extremists’ websites to studying how the brain responds to storytelling

The protests in Egypt fit right into the counterterrorism narrative.
The protests in Egypt fit right into the counterterrorism narrative. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mosa’aberising

Not long ago, banner ads showing coffins draped with American flags started appearing on websites in Yemen. They had been placed by supporters of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Their message was that Americans were the enemy and Al Qaeda was killing them.

A few days later people working for the U.S. State Department posted banners on the same websites, only this time the coffins were covered with Yemeni flags, photoshopped into the image. The message also had changed. This time it said that most of the people killed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were Yemen.

For all the attention paid to drone strikes and intelligence coups, the daily grind of counterterrorism is as much a digital parry and thrust, a continuous war of words and ideas played out on websites, chat rooms, forums, blogs and Twitter feeds. Now, experts will tell you, it’s all about the cyber-narrative.

And the State Department, specifically a group within it called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, is taking on this role with tools and techniques few could have imagined in the days after 9/11. Among other things, they’re training people to be trolls.

Hit them with your best shot

It’s part of something called Viral Peace. As yet, it’s a small project with a miniscule budget by federal government standards, but this gives you a sense of what’s now in play when it comes to counterterrorism tactics. The man behind it, a former Silicon Valley geek named Shahed Amanullah, believes that impressionable young men and women can be discouraged from becoming terrorists by challenging and undercutting extremists online, which is where they do most of their recruiting.

As he told Wired in a recent interview, Amanullah intends to use “logic, humor, satire, religious arguments, not just to confront them, but to undermine and demoralize them.”

To that end he sent two members of his team to Muslim countries–Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Pakistan–where they met with young adults who had already developed online followings. Better for them to do the trolling instead of people who’d be seen as mouthpieces of the U.S. government.

How effective this guerilla strategy of ridicule and rebuke will ultimately be is anyone’s guess, although people who monitor extremists online say they generally don’t respond well to being challenged. But it’s clear that the strategy of using the Web to take on terrorists goes all the way to the top of the State Department.

None other than Hillary Clinton was the one who proudly revealed the story of the photoshopped coffins.

Have I got a story for you

Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, the focus on controlling the narrative has taken an even more intriguing turn. DARPA, the Defense Department agency that funds cutting-edge research, is underwriting a study of what happens in the brain to incite political violence and how reshaping the narrative can help make people less radical.

The concept is called Narrative Networks and it looks at how stories affect the brain and human behavior, with the goal of finding ways to present narratives that help persuade people not to become terrorists.

Critics have already railed that it has all the makings of a new form of mind control, that with the highly sophisticated brain scans available today, a government could get a far better sense of how to refine messaging to make it more effective at changing people’s minds.

One of the researchers on the project, Paul Zak, of Claremont Graduate University in California, studies how listening to stories affects the brain’s release of oxytocin, known as the “love” or “trust” hormone. He says the purpose of the research is to see what kind of messages would help people view the military in the best possible light.

“We’re not in the business of reading people’s minds or implanting thoughts,” says Greg Berns, an Emory University professor also doing brain research for DARPA. “By understanding the biology of what causes people to go to war, we might begin to understand how to mitigate it.”

The fight stuff

Here’s more of the latest research into devices geared to 21st century warfare:

  • Inner vision: Veritas Scientific is developing for the Pentagon a helmet it says will help identify enemies. When placed on a person’s head, it would use sensors to read their brain’s reactions to images flashed on the helmet’s visor, such as specs for how to make a bomb.
  • Think fast: U.S. soldiers may soon be able to use a new technology called Sentinel, binoculars connected to a computer that would actually speed up the brain’s normal thought-processing so threats can be identified more quickly.
  • Shock troops: Next month some U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will start carrying a small pack called a Soldier Body Unit. Developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, it’s equipped with sensors that will measure the force of blasts that soldiers have been exposed to, and help doctors know if he or she has suffered a concussion.
  • That’s what he said: In May DARPA awarded a $7 million contract for the first phase of a project to create software that not only would translate all aspects of a foreign language, –including slang, regional dialects, and text messaging lingo–but would do it in real time.
  • Sound effects: And earlier this month DARPA unveiled a technique for putting out a fire using only sound. By playing a low-frequency bass note through two speakers pointed at the flame, researchers were able to increase air velocity and create a wider and cooler flame that sputtered out.

Video bonus: DARPA’s also been very big on funding robots. Here’s its AlphaDog Robot lugging 400 pounds over rugged terrain.

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