It is obvious that the Islamic State (IS) is winning the propaganda war against the West. The numbers of young men quitting their jobs and families in Europe and elsewhere to join IS in Syria is increasing, as is the number of young girls going there to become jihadi brides.
There are several reasons for this. For a start, going to war (when you are young and inexperienced) is an exciting prospect.
But more importantly, IS has managed to master social media better than any other entity (private or governmental) has ever done before.
This mastery is not because they have figured out some marvellous new formula on how to best use Facebook and Twitter. Their message that the Caliphate is an ideal world governed by God’s Law and so free of poverty and inequality is clear and consistent.
This clarity and consistency is wholly missing from Western efforts to counteract IS propaganda, as a recently leaked US State Department memo has conceded.
It seems that the members of the ‘message working group’, consisting of officials from the UAE, Britain and the USA who are spear-heading Western propaganda against IS, are not working well together. The structure of the working group is less than optimal and does not enable diverging views to be resolved.
In addition to failing to send out clear and consistent messages, the West has failed to engage IS in debate on the ideological or religious levels. Perhaps this is because politics are complicating the task of fighting terrorism through social media.
However other (mainly non-governmental) groups are developing online tools against terrorism.
These online tools mainly focus on analysing social media for clues that ‘forecast’ upcoming terrorist events. The tools are supplemented offline with on-the-ground information-gathering and analysis by humans.
For example, CySis, the CyberSocio Intelligent-Systems Lab in Arizona State University, is currently researching ‘information cascades’ and how they can be used to develop online tools to counter terrorism.
An information cascade occurs when people decide to do something because other people are doing it, even if doing it goes against their better judgement.
CySis expects that analysing information cascades will explain why people act in this (supposedly irrational) way, how likely they are to cascade incorrect information or actions, how such behaviour may arise and desist rapidly, and how effective attempts to originate a cascade tend to be under different conditions.
This research is considered crucial because IS has developed expertise in creating memes that resonate with Muslims and indeed with disillusioned non-Muslims.
A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. It acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices that can be transmitted through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.
The memes created by IS give rise to information cascades that persist until disillusion sets in, such as eventually arises with Jihadi brides who end up wishing to return to their original countries and families.
One of the reasons IS is so successful is because they send out multiple versions of each of their messages through multiple channels.
The structural diversity of messages that go viral how a particular news item, image or meme spreads in a variety of directions is important in understanding how information cascades can be created through online messages.
For instance, a single message received from a single source is less likely to go viral than the same message received from three separate sources. CySis have discovered that when a message spreads to a variety of online communities, it is more likely to go viral, ie spread rapidly throughout the Internet.
CySis have created measurements for assessing the significance of the first 50 people to whom a message spreads based on its structural diversity. Messages that show a significant chance of going viral can then be examined to see whether they indicate identifiable threats.
The company uses Twitter and Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) for data mining and analysis simply because they are readily available and are in the public domain. In addition, they are the favourite means of communication of most terrorist organisations and a variety of non-state actors.
Communications on the internet, however, are now so common that identifying information that is relevant to countering terrorist activities among the great pile of data being transmitted every day is extremely difficult. Examining all of it would absorb enormous resources in time and personnel.
However not all of it needs to be examined. Most tweets sent by IS and other entities are not successful and can be ignored. But sifting out the irrelevant tweets is a real challenge.
ScoutVision software from LookingGlass Cyber Solutions is an example of tool that can make sense of online data and identify security threats by sifting out irrelevant data.
However like all similar tools it needs to be supplemented by information gathered on the ground.
CySis have people in the UK, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia assessing how extremism forms in those particular cultures. They also help identify radical groups and their leaders.
The information that is gathered locally helps put online data research and analysis in context.
Because people in different countries use social media in different ways, this information also helps the developers of the online tools understand the cultural relevancy of how social media is used.
For example, IS uses various strategies for recruiting online. Some of these will work in some countries but not in others.
Combining online and offline research
The combination of online and offline research is expected to provide valuable scientific and cultural context for those who are fighting terrorism.
It will enable them to track incidents in the news, such as a terrorist attack, and see if there is any online activity before or after the incident. For example, a particular group may become notably excited or begin acting in a celebratory manner online, which might help identify the perpetrators.
When people protest against an action by a Western government, these tools can be used to analyse the reactions of particular groups and how protests are organised.
The end goal of all this development to is create an online tool that analysts can use to quickly identify the online activities of various groups, whether hostile or benign.
However, while these tolls maybe very useful in forestalling terrorist attacks or finding the culprits after an attack, they do not solve the fundamental problem of Western propaganda efforts against IS… the need for a single, clear and consistent message that is successful in counteracting the propaganda spouted by IS and other terrorist groups.
To do so will require:
 Development of a clear message based on the principals of Islam, so as to communicate with jihadis and potential jihadis in a language they understand.
 Learning and implementing the skills in social media and finding the resources needed to create structurally diverse broadcasts that go viral.