Hollywood film directors and Madison Avenue advertising executives are being asked by the US government to help combat the allure of the so-called Islamic State on social media.
Speaking on a trip to London, the Assistant Attorney General John Carlin told ITV News that his country’s very best storytellers had been approached to help the US take on the threat posed by terrorists online.
“We’ve called upon them to use their brains and expertise and think about how to do it in the social media echo chamber. The problem for us is, how do you reach that core group that is being hit by a massive amount of propaganda?”
Assistant attorney general since 2013, Carlin’s responsibilities includes monitoring terrorist activity on social media and what he described as “crowd sourced terrorism” whereby those linked to the Islamic State in the Levant contacting young people in America and encouraging them to commit acts of terrorism “no passport and no travel required”.
In recent years he has hit a lot of resistance from tech companies refusing to help hand over information related to terrorist activities.
Carlin told ITV News that persuading tech companies to help was still a difficult process: “Right now there is a problem. Sometimes we’ll have law enforcement obtain the predicate for the lawful court order issued by a criminal court judge and you go to serve that warrant and the tech company will say – this is lawful process – but we’re technically unable to give you the information in the way that you need to use it… so that’s a problem we need to solve together.”
But the US assistant attorney general pointed to successes: “In the last year the US has brought more criminal cases against those involved in international terrorism than we have at any time in our history”.
“Of those cases – and we brought over 60 cases last year - in almost every case the link was social media and because it’s social media just like we see with our kids in almost every other aspects of their lives… the age of the defendant was younger than we’ve seen in terrorism cases. Around 60% was 25 or younger… and in nearly 40% of the cases they were 21 or younger.”
“What we see now is terrorists bombarding images at them day in day out”.
Describing how terrorists are using social media, he said: “They don’t show the video of the people being beheaded - the atrocities being committed – instead they’ll start someone off with a video that shows literally a handsome young terrorist handing out cotton candy to children. That’s their image of what life is like.
Or, in another video, because they know kittens sell on the internet, they have a terrorist with kitten in one hand and an AK47 in the other.
“Once they have you hooked they directly talk to you, often again using US provided social media companies and you have an international terrorist overseas talking to someone’s kid in the basement – walking them down the path to radicalisation. That’s an incredibly hard problem for law enforcement and intelligence to disrupt.”
When asked whether social media companies like Facebook and Twitter need to take greater responsibility for terrorist content, Carlin said: “None one of these companies went into business so they could provide services to murdering and raping and enslaving terrorists.
"They recognise this is evil and it violates every one of their terms of service. Their own terms of service – no government action – their own terms of service.
“What we’re trying to do with partners like the UK is talk to the companies, make sure they know what we’re seeing in terms of the threat, how terrorists are exploiting their services and call upon them to use the same ingenuity that led to this enormous change in the way that we communicate and use that same ingenuity to stop that terrorist from exploiting their services."