Fight fire with fire

The US State Department takes on al-Qaeda — with PhotoShop

Written by The Indian Express | Published: May 28, 2012 2:13:25 am

The US State Department takes on al-Qaeda — with PhotoShop

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has revealed that the State Department is no slouch on the Web. When al-Qaeda bragged about killing Americans on certain Yemeni tribal websites,the US Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications made sure that their own images and messages dominated the site. The State Department was at pains to emphasise that this was not hacking,merely an online PR campaign. Besides,in drone-riddled Yemen,these efforts are trivial at best. However,given the sophistication with which al-Qaeda and its offshoots use the Web to radicalise and recruit,it is essential for the US to keep pace. The State Department’s digital outreach team,in Clinton’s words,is meant to “pre-empt,discredit and outmanoeuvre extremist propaganda”.

The Obama administration has brought a new focus to the information war with jihadist groups,engaging in a battle of words and memes. But the thing about counter-propaganda is that it loses its force when it is seen as propaganda too. It has to be presented as defensive,reactive,merely intended to counter a damaging perception.

And yet,the US does few things more dedicatedly than this kind of “persuasion” on the cultural front. So much came from the ideological warfare of an earlier time — publications from Reader’s Digest to Encounter,Hollywood movies,comics,and even,briefly,the Partisan Review. The CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom got

together “anti-Stalinist” intellectuals,and some suggest that even “modern art” of the 1950s and ’60s,the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning,was a careful contrast with Soviet social realism. Radio Free and Radio Free Europe brought their messages right into their adversary’s territory. Given all that history,this online intervention seems like a rather tame tit-for-tat.

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