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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reflections of a Troll

It's been a weird week.

While I was doing my routine reading of jihadi Twitter feeds on Tuesday, I noticed a few of them had gotten together to solicit advice on improving their media efforts using a hashtag to that effect in Arabic (#اقتراحك_لتطوير_اﻹعلام_الجهادي) so that they could go back later and collect the suggestions for later action.

This kind of thing goes on all the time among the jihobbyists, but I noted that a couple of Twitter users who are actual terrorist group members were taking part in the discussion (one associated with AQAP, another an active member of Al Shabab), as well as several prominent jihadist forum celebrities. I also noted that the tag had been initiated by another account that has made a point of trying to interfere with Twitter accounts that are countering jihadi messages online.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and I decided on a whim to mess with them. I posted their hashtag on my own Twitter account and encouraged my followers to send humorous suggestions on improving the state of jihadi media, starting with several of my own. My idea was to generate enough traffic to bury the sincere suggestions under a mountain of jokes.

After I tweeted enough to bore half of the people following me, the idea began to catch on and others started contributing. Pretty soon, we were generating enough noise to irritate the participants in the original discussion, some of whom expressed their unhappiness, which of course only encouraged me.

It was the sadface emoticon that really made this priceless. This user's account was subsequently suspended, for reasons unknown to me (Update: He's back online it seems, so it must have been temporary). Despite reports to the contrary, the account was not the originator of the hashtag nor was it targeted by me in any way. The comment above would certainly not fall within Twitter's guidelines for suspension, so I don't know exactly what happened there.

Anyway, all of this was destined to fall into the dustbin of Twitter history pretty quickly, but then Buzzfeed noticed what was going on and did a quick account of the exchange. Hundreds of people subequently showed up to participate, peaking after a mention on Maddow. As of this writing, the trolls had contributed almost 2,500 tweets using the hashtag, compared to about 200 from the jihadis (which includes retweets).

Three days later, behold the awesome power of Buzzfeed:

Note the number of results found. By way of perspective, here's what a search for my book yields:

So I guess now I'm that guy who trolls Al Qaeda on Twitter. I spent the week cycling from amusement to bemusement to a touch of frustration, although happily my most recent article for Foreign Policy on Twitter use by extremists did benefit from the exposure.

I want to make a couple quick comments about how it went and what I think it suggests for the future.

First off, let me be clear. Strictly on a practical basis, I could do this all day, every day, and there are hashtags that would have a much wider impact. I don't think that's a good idea, for any number of reasons. I've been over the conundrum of whether to allow jihadis to operate online or try to thwart them before, and my opinion remains the same -- we should disrupt them, but not indiscriminately.

There are valid intelligence benefits from allowing extremists to do their thing on the Internet, although I think this assertion has become a sacred cow among terrorism analysts in and out of government, who don't want to be bothered with the work that results when a useful source of information is terminated. I'm sympathetic to that issue, but I think it's shortsighted, especially when there are concrete advantages to smart disruptions.

That said, it's very much possible to go overboard with disruption. We need to pick our moments and pick our battles, or else we'll muck up the ecosystem, ironically allowing jihadis to hide more effectively in a noisy data set.

I was pleased to see that most of the actual tweets being trolled were in good humor and targeted terrorists directly, rather than making crude comments based on purely on race or religion. There was some such content, certainly, especially after the trollathon expanded from just my followers to the whole Internet, but it was less than I would have expected.

Race- and religion-baiting don't help a cause like this. In addition to being flat-out wrong on the face of it, that kind of content deters smart, conscientious people from participating. For a trollathon to work on this scale, you need to bring a lot of people to the table, and it's smarter and more satisfying to do that with wit and focus than to simply vent fear, anger and bigotry.

Overall, this whim turned into an interesting and productive project. I have some ideas about future projects in this space, and I'll discuss them as they reach maturity (and when we've taken a breather). But I think this demonstrates that we can make a difference using innovative engagement online, and I believe there are a lot of interesting possibilities we have not yet explored yet.

There are a number of problems with existing initiatives to counter violent extremism online (which I've written about at length) -- they include overbroad targeting, aversion to risk, an utter lack of creativity and too much focus on feel-good tactics.

Our little trollathon experiment -- and it was very much "ours," a group effort -- demonstrates the benefit of going after Al Qaeda directly and specifically, armed with a sense of humor and a willingness to throw rocks into the online pond, even when you can't totally predict how they will land.

Last but by no means least, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated -- thanks for your wit, your enthusiasm, your restraint and just for showing up. Without you, this little venture would have quickly disappeared into the dustbin of Twitter history. Instead, just maybe, it's the start of something with legs. Watch this space.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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