Just as it’s easier to make war than peace, it’s apparently much easier to put out sexy social media if your message is rage-filled jihad rather than “countering violent extremism.” That, at least, would seem to be the lesson of the past several months, as the Islamic State has put governments’ and competing extremist groups’ PR efforts to shame, firing off tens of thousands of tweets per day and flooding the internet with viral clips that riff on flashy, violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty.”
But some university students are trying to out-campaign the extremists. Since January, students at 23 universities around the world have taken part in a “peer-to-peer” competition to research, design, and launch U.S. State Department-backed social media campaigns aimed at countering the influence of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in their communities. Competing against teams in countries from Serbia to Morocco to Germany to Singapore, 25 students in Kuwait developed a platform to connect young, isolated Muslims with an online community. An Australian team developed an app to give Muslim youth positive daily messages, and students from Canada sought to correct inaccurate ideas about Islam.
The winning team announced Thursday, though, came from Missouri State University in Springfield, where students developed a Common Core-compatible curriculum that could be used to teach middle-schoolers about extremism, spread the hashtag #EndViolentExtremism across social media, and made contact with people in about 90 countries. The Missouri students were among three top teams that flew to Washington to present their work to judges from a range of U.S. agencies, who want to learn from their efforts.
“Our goal for this project is for American communities, working with partners internationally, to identify the challenges, figure out what works best, and then find the solutions to extremism on their own for their own communities,” Kelly Keiderling, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, told Foreign Policy. While government officials often “aren’t the most engaging voices to reach those youth,” she said, these campaigns can speak the language of their own communities, literally and figuratively.
The team from Australia’s Curtin University — one of the others that presented in Washington on Thursday — developed an app called 52Jumaa that offers young Muslims daily positive messages about Islam, helps them connect with each other, and every Friday asks them to complete a challenge (e.g. “Feed a homeless person”) to engage with their society. Working with the $2,000 provided to each team, the Curtin students tested their app with teenagers in their Perth community, many of them members of the Somali diaspora. Based on the teens’ feedback, the team plans to modify the app to let users create challenges for each other, said 21-year-old team member Ruby Avis.
The third team to present in Washington, from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, developed a campaign aimed at changing misperceptions spread by extremist groups of Islam as a violent, vindictive religion, through offerings ranging from on-campus photo exhibitions to online quizzes on topics like “What Muslim Hip Hop Artist are You?”
Winning team member Rosella Short said the Missouri-based campaign, known as One95, hoped to collaborate with the runners-up in the future. “We chose One95 because it’s not a country-specific problem, violent extremism is not an ethnic-specific problem — it’s a global issue,” she said.
The U.S. government is giving the top three teams’ universities $5,000, $2,000, and $1,000, respectively, and is sending the two international groups on a 10-day trip to Minneapolis and San Francisco, where they’ll get advice on developing their campaigns. This fall, the “peer-to-peer” program will double to include 40 to 50 universities due to high levels of interest, according to Tony Sgro, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based EdVenture Partners, the peer-marketing consulting group that the State Department hired to organize the program and advise the college teams.
But the initiative’s longer-term future isn’t clear. It’s up to each team and its university to decide if and how it will continue its campaign, and the State Department stressed that the whole program is a pilot as officials assess its worth. The haziness reflects a broader debate going on in the government — and elsewhere — about how best to fight the Islamic State, or even what to call that fight.
In fact, members of the Missouri State team told Foreign Policy that having to use the State Department’s preferred term, “Countering Violent Extremism,” had made it harder to communicate with their peers.
“We were throwing ‘violent extremism’ out there, and they’re like, what is that?” said Addison Reed, a 22-year-old advertising major on the team. “But the second we said ‘terrorism’ or ‘ISIS’, they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
So far, full-blown Islamic State supporters, as opposed to “at risk” youth the program targeted, seem to have left the student campaigns alone. That’s a relief to worried university administrators and parents, said Sean Ferrell, EdVenture Partners’ senior vice president and project manager. On the other hand, he admitted, organizers did sometimes find themselves thinking, “Hey, wouldn’t that kind of be a measure of success, if the campaigns were out there enough that they draw attention from extremist groups?” But, he said, “We’ve learned that a lot of those extremists, if you come at them head-on with some facts and try to expose the hypocrisy, really kind of shy away pretty quickly, because they realize, ‘You’re not my target.’”
While that might be true, the lack of response does raise obvious questions about how much these campaigns can really accomplish. Even leaving aside broader criticisms about the ineffectiveness of “clicktivism,” it’s worth noting that judges evaluated each student project only on how well it conveyed its messages to its chosen community, without weighing whether that population was a large or important target for extremist recruitment. And although violent extremism may threaten all countries to some degree, it’s perhaps striking that the three top-ranked campaigns all came from wealthy countries where English dominates.
Although some campaigns — such as the one from the Morocco team — naturally engaged with their target audience in Arabic, the State Department required that final presentations be made in English. Other campaigns, like one from Serbia, were “brilliant, but their submission didn’t have the sophistication, the language, to be able to be competitive” in the judging, said Sgro of EdVenture Partners.
Maybe #EndViolentExtremism will end up going viral, but if it does, it might not be in English.
Image credit: EdVenture Partners/Curtin University