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To fight ISIS, West Point cadets build Facebook page

By Lauren Markoe/Religion News Service
On February 17, 2016

In efforts to combat terrorism, West Point cadets secretly create Facebook page targeting those considering joining ISIS.

Last fall, 16 West Point cadets – none of them Muslim – signed up for an elective on counterterrorism and created a Facebook page to appeal to young Muslims thinking about joining the so-called Islamic State.

The cadets aimed to persuade those tempted by the terrorist cause to see “jihad” as a struggle, but not the violent one that groups such as the Islamic State promote. For their project to succeed they would have to learn more about the faith and build a social media platform that reserved judgment even on those who expressed admiration for committed terrorists. And there was no way they could let on that West Point cadets had engineered the page and its related Twitter feed, YouTube channel and website.

“If individuals went (to) the website and knew 16 cadets from the U.S. Military Academy were behind it, I think it would lose a lot of its credibility,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Price, the cadets’ professor.

Last week, the West Point project took second place in an international contest for college students on combating terrorism online sponsored by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Facebook and EdVenture Partners, a business that connects industry to colleges.

The project got results. In two months it reached more than 900,000 users on Facebook in more than 25 countries. Nearly 75,000 people engaged with the page.

“We took that as a compliment,” said Cadet Jordan Isham, a sign the feed attracts people other than those who adamantly reject violent extremism. A phone call explaining who controlled the Twitter account and their goal quickly persuaded Twitter to restore it.

In pursuit of credibility, the students began their project by interviewing Muslim fellow cadets to deepen their knowledge of Islam. They consulted with psychologists to learn how certain colors on their website could evoke certain emotions in users - green because of its association with Islam, and black because terrorists tend to like it. And they found the most opportune times to put new material online – after major terrorist attacks, but also on Fridays in the Muslim world.

“We post after Friday prayer, when many people would be home and at their computers,” said Cadet C.J. Drew.

But once on the cadets’ social media platforms, users are gently pushed toward a website – now live but still developing – which features moderate Muslim voices talking about Islam as a religion of peace. With their $3,000 second place prize, the cadets plan to continue work on the project. They asked that the media refrain from disclosing their campaign’s URLs or other identifying information, for fear it would lose credibility if associated with future Army officers.

“What if your social media platforms get swarmed with extremists?” asked one of the judges after cadets presented their work.

That happens, and it’s not always such a bad thing, answered Drew. It can lend authenticity to the site, and more moderate voices often overwhelm the extremist ones, he said.

The project took on a life of its own. “I thought that this was going to be dead after the class ended and the final grades were submitted,” said Price, the director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

“Over break, when most of them should have been hanging out with their families, we had cadets that were still updating stuff on the website,” said Price of his students.

But can a contest really make a difference in the global battle against violent extremism? For the grand-prize winners, who take $5,000 back to Pakistan to further their project, terrorism is a fact of life. They introduced their project to the State Department judges by describing their homeland.

“I live in a country where academic institutions must be protected by snipers every day,” one of them told the panel of judges.

Lauren Markoe is a national reporter with RNS.

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