ISIS, or the Islamic State, has had a fair amount of success spreading their message and recruiting people through social media—a task that is far more challenging than many might consider. Think about the level of effort and expertise McDonald’s uses to engage millennials in the digital sphere, and despite a marketing budget that would put some nations to shame, only 20 percent of millennials in America have ever even tried a Big Mac. Using the very same tools and platforms, ISIS has managed to get young people to leave their homes and families to join in their fight, either in places like Iraq or as a “lone wolf” terrorist, often giving up their lives in the process.
This fact wasn’t lost on the U.S. government, which recognized that an important combat theater in the war against ISIS had to be online, where they were continuing to garner support and even recruits from nations all across the globe. Of course, if McDonald’s can put the best social media minds on the planet to work to try to boost Big Mac sales, the government surely must have their own crack team of Arabic-speaking social media experts to fight the good fight in the Twittersphere and elsewhere that ISIS is permitted to publicly engage in recruiting practices…right?
Unfortunately, a recent investigation conducted by the Associated Press found that, although the government does have a team working feverishly to prevent potential recruits from turning to the dark side, they seem to be downright bad at the job.
The responsibility of the WebOps program that falls under U.S. Central Command is to engage with people in social media that are being courted by ISIS and other extremist groups and to try to convince them not to aid in the terrorist organization’s efforts. Doing so requires a thorough understanding of the culture the people live in and the language they use to interact. After all, it can be difficult to understand discussions on Twitter when they are conducted in English without having an appreciation for the digital shorthand of the day, so trying to jump into the middle of a Twitter conversation in Arabic presents a unique challenge that it appears the WebOps program has not been able to effectively manage.
“One of the things about jihadis: They are very good in Arabic,” said an Arabic specialist who previously worked on WebOps and requested anonymity. He went on to describe one instance in which the words for “authority” and “salad” got mixed up in translation, prompting the Twitter accounts being used by WebOps to be openly ridiculed by ISIS for discussing “Palestinian salad” in their efforts to stop recruitment.
You might suspect that such a mistaken Tweet couldn’t have too much of an effect on the program—until you come to find that WebOps has been doctoring its own numbers by reposting the same content from multiple user names repeatedly to demonstrate the high degree of “engagement” they have with the enemy.
“You send it like a blind copy. You program it to send a tweet every five minutes to the whole list individually from now until tomorrow,” the former employee said. “Then you see the reports and it says yesterday we sent 5,000 engagements. Often that means one Tweet on Twitter.” Those engagements are then added to a report management would provide to CENTCOM, indicating their high output without providing any insight into how they achieved that number.
In fact, the WebOps team, which is made up of a combination of military personnel and contractors, are responsible for their own appraisals. Each interaction is graded by the person conducting it, and perhaps unsurprisingly, very few of them indicated that they weren’t doing a great job.
“You shouldn’t grade your own homework,” said a former U.S. military officer and data specialist that conducted a 2014 report on the WebOps program. His report found WebOps to be systemically flawed. “The argument was that WebOps was the only program at Central Command that was directly engaging the enemy and that it couldn’t function if its staff was constantly distracted by assessment,” he added.
The program is run by the Alabama-based Colsa Corporation, but they have redirected media requests to CENTCOM, who has thus far declined to respond to allegations regarding the ineffectiveness of the program, or recent whistleblower complaints regarding conflicts of interest within WebOps and Colsa. Allegations include lavish dinners, funded by Colsa, for senior leadership within the program, and issues with personnel routinely drinking alcohol while working. The accusations of drinking on the job were then corroborated by two more whistleblowers who came forward to say drinking was a common practice—even while working with classified documentation.
It’s important to note, however, that the primary whistleblower presenting these allegations of alcohol abuse and conflicts of interest has been reported to be a manager at a company that lost a recent bid for a similar contract to the one Colso currently has with CENTCOM. Although that doesn’t prove the allegations are false, it represents a conflict of interest in itself.
Whether WebObs is running poorly because of conflicts of interest and drinking, or whether it’s just underperforming due to poor policies and procedures, the outcome is the same. WebObs is currently failing in its mission to engage with the enemy and cut them off from using the web as a force multiplier. Dramatic changes will need to be made under President Trump and new Secretary of Defense James Mattis in order to put the United States at the forefront of the digital battle with terrorism, or we risk continuing to lose the quiet war that rages in parallel to the one we see on the news.
Image courtesy of the American Center for Law and Justice