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Curbing Future Terrorists with Online Engagement

Over the weekend, Politico published an opinion article on how the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) within the State Department uses social media and web forums to engage with potential radical groups to help influence them against violence or becoming a part of terrorist organizations. Unlike commercial marketing teams that use social media to convince potential customers to buy a product, the CSCC doesn’t try to convince its audience the virtue of U.S. policies and Western values. It reaches out to this small minority of mostly young men “who are vulnerable to the enticements of terror organizations or easily mobilized by the acts of marginal players.” Instead of focusing on countries or religious ideology, the CSCC pushes the conversation to the tangible consequences of terrorism and the victims of these acts. By creating doubt about its effectiveness and relevancy, the CSCC hopes to shrink the number of terrorists.

Ultimately, the CSCC pushes for a proactive approach instead of a reactive response, “to change behaviors before they reach the point of violence.” While not every government organization is interacting with radical and borderline violent audiences, most have at some point dealt with a dissatisfied constituent or stakeholder and know that simply filing away complaint emails don’t solve the root problem. If the State Dept can use social media and web forums to reach out to agitated foreigners, surely other government organizations can do the same with American citizens and interact with stakeholders where they live and through tools they’re already using before they become disillusioned of the government’s role in our lives. While engaging through inventive online avenues has been touch-and-go in many agencies, the CSCC’s work shines as an example of how at least putting yourself out online and through the tools of your audience can help change the conversation from blind animosity to constructive conversations.

This was my gut reaction after reading this article. What is yours?

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Peter Sperry

I think it becomes a matter of priorities. Active engagement requires listening, understanding and responding on as much of an individual basis as possible. It quickly be comes a very time consuming staff intensive process given the level of interaction required with each individual. Few, if any, budgets can support the required staff levels. So individuals are agragated into larger and larger response gruops until the engagement becomes active in name only. Which is why most citizen government communication seems to be so disengaged. But, given a relatively small group of easily identifiable constituents (probably less than 1-2 thousand world wide) and the very high return on investment from turning them away from terrorism; I can see how it would more than justify the staff resources necessary to engage them at a very individualized level. I am not sure the same dynamic would apply if there were 50 million of them and the worst case was a dissatisfied but not violant citizen.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I think “hyper-local” and “hyper-topical” are the operative words for successful citizen engagement in the US. Two examples:

1) Neighborhood Listserv: ask most people how they engage with their neighbors online – if they do at all – and my hunch is that a neighborhood listserv is part of it. I suspect there are also Facebook groups like this one: http://www.facebook.com/KingstonNeighborhoodWatch

2) Navy Moms – something that people have in common with an emotional tie: http://www.navyformoms.com/ – though even this community looks like it has less engagement than it might have had early on.

Of course, both of these examples are by individuals with each other…not government initiating or creating the platform. How can government – Fed, state and local – learn from these examples?