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State Department Keeps Up Effort To Win Information War Against ISIS

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been talking with the man who tries to coordinate U.S. messages against radical extremism. Richard Stengel is a former journalist now finishing his job directing public diplomacy at the State Department. A big part of Stengel's job is working to persuade the world's far more than one billion Muslims that the United States opposes terrorism, not their religion. Another part of Stengel's job is countering social media propaganda put out by ISIS, or ISIL as the administration calls it.

Are there more people weaponizing lies?

RICHARD STENGEL: Yes. Well, certainly the - what we saw with the rise of ISIL, as we call it, was a very deliberate weaponization of information. Within the government, we have these lines of effort that are counter-ISIS, and the first line of effort is the military line of effort. The sixth line of effort is the information line of effort. They combined them in a really interesting way.

INSKEEP: ISIS did. Their military operations and their information - virtually the same thing.

STENGEL: Virtually the same. And if you remember those early videos, I mean, they're attacks. They had, you know, guys with cameras right there, and everything was being recorded. And they used that as a weapon to intimidate people, to terrorize people, to scare people. And in that early rise of ISIL, so many people did fling open their doors to them because of fear.

INSKEEP: Because they had sent word through videos and other ways that they were going to be chopping off heads.

STENGEL: Exactly. And they were absolutely ruthless in that there was no observation of any kind of rules of warfare.

INSKEEP: Is the United States weaponizing information?

STENGEL: In my neck of the woods, which is the State Department, we have kind of gotten out of the business of even counter-messaging because we realized that our message doesn't have the credibility that some of our partners do, the private sector partners, mainstream Islam groups, imams, clerics.

INSKEEP: So you don't see your job as to put out press releases, say. It is to engage people who can be spokesman or vouch for the United States.

STENGEL: Yes. I mean, in politics, they call it surrogates. I mean, we try to kind of engage and amplify and give greater capacity to people who are surrogates, who - and by the way, we're not telling them what to say. We're talking about, you know, Al-Azhar University in Egypt that, you know, puts out digital fatwas every day against the Islamic State.

INSKEEP: This is a very famous Islamic center of learning institution for centuries there.

STENGEL: Yes.

INSKEEP: So you work with them you're saying.

STENGEL: And we work with them. We work with anybody who shares this point of view. And really, we're just trying to give them greater capacity to reach a bigger audience and to have a more effective message.

INSKEEP: How do you know if you're making any progress?

STENGEL: Well, we use the same analytics that everybody does, that NPR does, about engagement and on - one of the things I've preached since I've come to the State Department is that it's not about reach. It's about engagement. It's about do people click on this? Do they forward it to people? I just want to make this point. We are winning not only the military campaign against the Islamic State. We are winning the campaign against the digital Islamic State, which is shrinking, you know, almost as much as their so-called caliphate is.

INSKEEP: How do you measure that? How do you know you're winning?

STENGEL: Well, we measure the number of tweets that they do, the number of followers that they have. I mean, J.M. Burger, who's the best researcher in this - he's outside the government - has estimated that their number of fanboys has decreased by, like, 40 percent. The number of followers of those fanboys have decreased by 70 percent. And by the way, this...

INSKEEP: You've got a definition of fanboys like somebody who sends lots of tweets in response and that sort of thing.

STENGEL: Yes, and that is - that's how they have amplified their message. And again, you know, Twitter has announced that they've taken down more than 400,000 handles. Facebook is in this game. YouTube - I look at videos that are taken down from YouTube within minutes sometimes. So all of the tech companies realize this is a threat to their ecosystem. They don't want this kind of pollution of content on their system. And they've been really aggressive in getting rid of it.

INSKEEP: Obviously, you're looking out from Washington to the rest of the world, but your job is being done in a political context here in the United States. We've just had a very divisive election. You're in the studio telling me you think that the war is being won against ISIS, that the information war is going better. We've just had an election, and the winning candidate was somebody who said it's all going very, very badly, and clearly lots of people believed his point of view. Are you losing the argument at home about how to do things abroad?

STENGEL: There's a very big difference between campaigning and governing. And I think it's indisputable that the military campaign is being won. It's indisputable that the messaging and communications campaign is being won. And I believe the Obama administration has done a terrific job. We've done a terrific job on both of those fronts. And I think when there's a new administration, they will see that and reckon with it. I mean, that is the reality. There's no kind of disinformation about that. I mean, it's very clear what's happening on the ground.

INSKEEP: Richard Stengel, thanks for coming by.

STENGEL: Great to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a former editor of Time, now finishing his job as President Obama's undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 2, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A headline on this story previously stated that Richard Stengel was leaving his post as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. In fact, Stengel has not publicly announced any departure plans.