A Smarter Social Media Strategy for the Middle East (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Thomas Brodey, Fall 2020 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The past twenty years have shown that the United States’ attempt to destroy Middle Eastern terrorist groups through force is economically unsustainable and militarily inconclusive. Clearly, the United States should give alternative methods of curbing terrorism a serious look. One of the most promising of these alternative methods is social media. Social media is an important and often overlooked tool in the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East. A more active American initiative would deny terrorists this crucial resource and thus diminish the need for military operations.

At the moment, U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern social media is minimal, and usually operates directly under the name of the U.S. government. Because the U.S. government lacks credibility in the Middle East, particularly in those parts of the internet frequented by terrorists and potential recruits. Other actors have begun perfecting social media as a political tool. This paper examines the social media campaigns of both ISIS and Russia, and shows that they use fake accounts, bots, and adaptable messaging to great effect.

The United States should adopt certain elements of these social media campaigns, particularly their scale and use of bots to amplify certain voices and drown out others. Ultimately, this new approach would significantly reduce the threat posed by terrorists, and thereby present an opportunity to disengage from expensive and bloody military commitments without incurring undue risk. Furthermore, it would increase American capabilities in a new and fast-growing area of diplomacy.