As hundreds of political, religious and community leaders gathered in Washington this week to discuss how best to counter extremist propaganda, Abu Hurairah Britani was busy updating his Twitter profile photo.
The photograph chosen by the self-described Islamic State martyr-in-waiting shows him with a goofy smile on his face, holding a jar of Nutella. It is in some ways a fitting image for someone whose Tweets veer from calls for widespread jihad to descriptions of his favourite milkshakes.
In recent months – and culminating in this week's "Countering Violent Extremism" summit in Washington – Western governments have invested heavily in programs designed to counter the violent propaganda of terror groups including the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But while the most widely known form of that propaganda involves bloody footage of beheadings, there is a much larger, more effective recruitment and radicalization tool that often receives far less attention – the thousands of Islamic State members and passive supporters who, through countless and mostly benign social media posts, help give the terror network the appearance of normalcy.
"ISIS has an extremely sophisticated generative propaganda machine," says Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on radicalization who attended this week's conference in Washington. "And there's so little out there that seeks to challenge that or tell a different story."
There has been no shortage of counter-radicalization efforts on the part of Western governments as of late – efforts made more urgent thanks to a string of small-scale but deadly terror attacks believed to be inspired in part by pro-IS extremism.
This week, a program called Extreme Dialogue – designed to get students talking about the dangers of radicalization – was launched in Calgary. The program, which urges students to share the teaching materials on social media, is funded by Public Safety Canada. In the U.S., the State Department runs a social media effort called "Think Again, Turn Away," which aims to highlight the brutality and hypocrisy of terror groups. Originally, the program targeted all extremists, but in recent months, it has focused overwhelmingly on the Islamic State, as the group's influence and social media support appeared to skyrocket.
"Nobody could have predicted the speed at which IS would metastasize," says Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of public policy at Northeastern University who studies governments' responses to terrorism. "You're starting to see smaller groups now aligning with IS not so much to receive operational support, but because of the attractiveness of the name."
The rapid growth of the Islamic State has been partly aided by a massive base of social media supporters, many of whom are much more likely to push a kinder, gentler image of the terror group, rather than its now-infamous execution videos. This week, for example, many of the images being spread around social media by pro-IS users were of parades in towns under the extremist group's control, or of children posing happily next to the terror group's black flag. (The group claims to have opened hundreds of new schools in the parts of Iraq and Syria it holds). In one image, masked fighters stand solemnly in front of a raging pyre in which burns a pile of musical instruments. The group's extremist ideology labels almost all forms of music sinful.
For IS, such images are especially important because they project what is, in its view of the world, a sense of internal normalcy and stability – a sense that the Islamic State is indeed a functioning state. Projecting that image is vital not only to attract new supporters and members, but also for the terror group to show that it is achieving progress toward its ultimate goal, the creation of a new Islamic empire, or caliphate.
Many accounts that disseminate propaganda for the terror group only manage to stay online for a few days or weeks before being suspended. When that happens, the person behind the account simply creates a new one with a slightly different name, and the broad pro-IS social media community spreads the word. One Twitter user, who goes by the username "State Of Islam," claims to be on his 26th such account.
It is precisely those users that Western governments are now scrambling to address head-on. Unlike U.S. propaganda efforts of the past that were a one-way conversation – Radio Free Europe, which broadcast into communist countries, for example – the State Department's new social media program engages and rebuts individual pro-IS users online.
The goal is to provide a compelling counterpoint to extremist narratives. But some experts question if a counterpoint presented by a government can be effective within a community whose members are most at risk of radicalization.
"Developing those materials and using social media is necessary," says Prof. Weine. "However it's my own opinion, but also that of many at [this week's anti-extremism] summit, that government is not the right entity to be doing that.
"It's much more valid for this to come from community voices, including youth voices, or including voices of religious scholars – people who can say with authority that these messages you're hearing are lies, they're perversions."