U.S. agency looks to social data to fight ISIS

Mar 18, 2016, 3:14 PM EDT
(Source: gaelx/flickr)
(Source: gaelx/flickr)

Earlier this week, the Obama administration established a Center for Global Engagement, an agency designed to "support government-wide counterterrorism communications activities directed abroad," according to the executive order released Monday. The agency is headed by Michael Lumpkin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, who says that there will be a serious change in messaging tactics to target ISIS and other terrorist groups. Part of Lumpkin’s strategy will be to employ big data and social media to gain a better understanding of who and what to target.

Data analysts will work with private industry partners to analyze broad swaths of social media data, according to the Daily Beast. Public information users leave on social networks is definitely fodder, and Lumpkin says that this is "uncharted territory” for the U.S. government. 

Indeed, the government will have to cultivate its relationship with Silicon Valley — a hard sell these days. The approach the Center for Global Engagement will try to take will likely mirror tactics that web companies already use to target potential customers. What Lumpkin emphasized was an urgently-needed shift in messaging. And to do that, the public sector will finally have to engage the expertise of the private sector. The Executive Order states that part of the responsibilities and functions of the Center includes:

"[…] identifying, engaging, employing, or acquiring the best available talent across the U.S. and from global private sectors, academia, and elsewhere to support the Center’s mission […]”

With a budget of $20 million, perhaps the Center can employ some top-notch hackers, bloggers, data experts, and others to craft a new campaign against terrorist organizations. But big data will certainly be at play here as the Center looks to glean all it can from global social networks. 

That is a big ask, but so far efforts to counter the messaging network of ISIS have failed. The Center for Global Engagement replaces the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications — an agency that was not successful in "trolling” ISIS and stemming recruitment online. While, of course, it is impossible to know how many people didn’t sign up with terrorist groups because of the efforts of that previous center, it was widely criticized for its outdated tactics. Perhaps with modern data analysis on its side, the new center will have more luck.