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Trolling the Terrorists, One Official State Department Tweet at a Time

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, May 22 2014

Screenshot of the @ThinkAgain_DOS Twitter account

The State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was established in 2011 “to coordinate, orient and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism.” In practice, turns out that often means 'trolling terrorists on Twitter.' Although this has been going on for years (in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali), the practice recently drew increased publicity and scrutiny after the CSCC branched out into the English-language Internet late last year.

The CSCC coordinator, Alberto Fernandez, objects to the 'troll' label. "Some people use that because I think it's convenient shorthand for an adversarial relationship," he told CNN. "To me, (a troll) ... is a person who is annoying and obnoxious and stupid. Well, we're none of those things, because we're answering their charges with facts."

The verified CSCC English-language Twitter account, called Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) tweeted for the first time December 4, 2013, with their motto-as-hashtag #thinkagainturnaway.

The account sends out reminders of past horrors, and spars with many of the accounts that tweet in response. Reminding everyone that Osama Bin Laden was in hiding for years is one of their favorite go-to comebacks.

Some have called the initiative a disastrous failure. The blogger Abdul Malek wrote:

In the international politics arena, you must plan your next move carefully and think ahead of your opponents. But someone in the US State Department clearly had much to drink and decided that trolling "terrorists", "radicals", "extremist sympathisers" with the Twitter campaign #thinkagainturnaway, was a good idea.

As it often does, the campaign failed spectacularly. Activists with the power of the internet replied, often higlighting US's genocidal force that is part and parcel of its sticks-or-carrots foreign policy. [sic]

Like Twitter campaigns before (think #myNYPD) the campaign has been beset by negative messages about the State Department and the United States military.

The CSCC has also produced several bizarre spoof videos. The first, at least, was not well received.

Is the campaign doing any good? Hard to tell! A 2012 study published in The Middle East Journal would suggest 'no'—only 4 percent of interactions with CSCC accounts expressed a positive opinion of the campaign and only 4.8 percent approved of United States foreign policy. But the Digital Outreach Team explained to the researchers that the effect on “lurkers” cannot be quantified, and it is for their benefit that they engage with online commentators.

To many, their actions still scream troll.

Journalist Jonathan Krohn started the Twitter account @JihadiStuff and has virtually clashed with @ThinkAgain_DOS on multiple occasions.

"As a psy-op [psychological operations] tool, it's pretty laughable," Krohn told CNN. "They target journalists and analysts with as much verve as attacking jihadis."

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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