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Canada to combat jihadist recruiters with own social media campaign

The ability of extremist groups such as the Islamic State to lure thousands of young foreigners into their ranks is usually attributed to their propaganda skills and social-media savvy.

Now, Canada, in the foosteps of countries such as France and the United States, is trying to counter the extremist narrative with government-funded videos and materials of its own.

Such outreach initiatives can, however, backfire if not executed properly, as the French learned when an infographic was much mocked for showing warning signs of radicalization appeared to suggest one such clue was the refusal to eat baguettes.

The Canadian project, called Extreme Dialogue, features films and education resources that offer a counter-narrative to young people who might be lured by extremism.

The films include testimony from Christianne Boudreau, whose son, the Calgary Muslim convert Damian Clairmont, died fighting with IS in Syria.

The brainchild of the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It is funded by the Kanishka Project, a $10-million initiative by the Canadian government to fund counter-terrorism research.

Details of the project remain under wrap until its official unveiling next Tuesday in Calgary.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, the French government launched its own Internet counter-propaganda campaign, unveiling a website (Warning: some graphic content) with a video that seeks to dispell myths about joining IS.

The video, titled “Decrypting Jihadi Propaganda” contrasts claims against the reality of life in insurgent-held zones.

Volunteer fighters who think they will join a just cause are reminded that they will “discover hell on earth and die alone, far from home.” Women who want to start a family by marrying a heroic Jihadist, are told they will raise their children in a war zone.

The mixed reaction to the video, however, underlines the challenges in promoting an official message in the digital age.

French officials are aware that their production is just a preliminary step with limited impact, said Nicolas Vanderbiest, a doctoral student in the political-science faculty of the Université catholique de Louvain.

Mr. Vanderbiest, who studies how information spreads online, said he had spoken at a conference with French specialists familiar with the campaign. “They were happy that they were getting a lot of views. It was a way for them to show that they are present out there ... They are conscious they need to go beyond that.”

The French campaign has been criticized both for its concept and execution.

Several analysts noted that wannabe jihadists are by nature skeptical of mainstream media and official narratives.

The campaign is akin to anti-cigarette ads that warn that smoking kills, says French e-commerce entrepreneur François Momboisse, an expert in digital marketing. “You're using rational arguments to counter a yearning that isn't and I'm not sure it will work,” he said.

Mr. Vanderbiest said the video is coming out at a time when young people no longer rely on traditional mass media.

He said what gives a video authority is whether it is shared and propagated by trusted peers and influencers on social media. “For them, a video from a government website is not interesting,”

Furthermore, it is unlikely a wannabe Jihadi would stumble onto the video by accident. Because of the way it is labelled, the government film does not come up when one does a Google search for IS videos.

The implementation of the campaign has also been questioned.

The much-derided infographic purported to show clues that someone was radicalizing.

The anti-social signs included withdrawing from friends and family, shunning television, movies or music, snubbing sports to avoid mingling with women, and changing their diet.

Unfortunately, the image for dietary change showed a cross over a loaf of bread, triggering much joking about the government warning against people who won't eat baguettes.

Parodies of the infographic appeared, suggesting similar techniques to detects librarians or machismo (below).

The U.S. State Department also has an anti-jihadist message effort, through Twitter and Facebook.

The campaign, dubbed Think Again Turn Away, is “a gaffe machine,”" said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremists' online activities.

In a comment piece last fall in Time magazine, she said the State Department's outreach was ineffective and providing jihad sympathizers with a stage.

She noted how the Twitter account argued with pro-Jihad users in ways that highlighted American policy shortcomings or failed to distinguish between IS and its rivals in the al-Nusra front.

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