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How to Troll Islamic State Like a Pro

Maria LaMagna is the web producer for Bloomberg View. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2013, where she was the editor-in-chief of the Daily Northwestern.
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From the grainy post-Sept. 11 video clips of Osama bin Laden to today's sophisticated online propaganda, Islamic terrorists and their supporters worldwide have proved adept at using the press, Internet and social media to get out their message and attract recruits.

Sporadic attempts by the U.S. and its allies to do the same have been far less successful. J.M. Berger, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said such efforts are complicated by the coalition against Islamic State being such a diverse group of countries, making it difficult to present a united countermessage.

This has led some people opposed to the terrorists to mount their own media battle. Affiliates of the hacker group Anonymous announced in June they would go to war with Islamic State online, taking down its websites and social media accounts as part of "Operation NO2ISIS." Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Anonymous itself appears to have successfully shut down hundreds of Twitter accounts, a dozen Facebook pages and many e-mail addresses. The group threatened the jihadis in a new video posted Friday.

Some U.S. officials and private citizens have also tried to strike back online with one of the Internet age's most potent weapons: trolling. Can insults and snark succeed where more measured propaganda has failed? Here are some of the better efforts to diss the jihadis.  

1. Call them names

It's the Pentagon's official policy to refer to the Islamic State with the acronym "ISIL," but that hasn't stopped some outside the building from getting more creative. Lieutenant General James Terry, the overall U.S. commander against the militant group, has made waves by repeatedly using the term "Daesh" to refer to it in interviews.

Daesh is an alternative transliteration of the group's acronym that is seen as derogatory, in part due to its similarity with an Arabic verb for "trample down" or "crush." It also does not include the word "Islamic," making it attractive to those who want to press the claim that the jihadis have a subverted view of Islam.

Others have followed suit: The French government referred to Islamic State as "Daesh" in a statement in September. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly used the term when speaking at NATO headquarters in December. Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would be using the name "Daesh" exclusively and encouraged others to do the same.

Paul Smyth, a British army major and author of "Blogging from the Battlefield" recently tweeted encouragement, as well.

Of course, there's some risk involved. As Smyth noted, militants in Mosul have threatened to cut the tongues of those who publicly used the name. 

2. Ridicule their Photoshop skills

After Islamic State released a video threatening to kill two Japanese hostages -- since believed to have been killed -- some Japanese responded on social media by turning screenshots of the video into illustrations.

Berger said satire and mockery can be effective responses to extremism. But beyond turning the violent images into an "ISIS Crap Photoshop Grand Prix," the artists are pointing out something -- the Islamic State video looks digitally manipulated. And badly.

3. Invite them over

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned members of the U.S. military in December that Islamic State could be monitoring their social media accounts, and that they should remove personal information that might draw attention from "violent extremists."

In response, Marine veteran Dakota Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor for acts of extraordinary valor in Afghanistan, tweeted this photo:

Amusing, yes, but Berger warns that engaging terrorists in virtual reality poses dangers in the actual one. “Certainly there are a lot of risks online, ISIS being just one of them," he said. "I think people would be well-advised to think more about what they share and with whom.”

4. Impersonate them

Some social media users have created Islamic State parody accounts on Twitter in order to make light of the group and crowd out its message.

The Iraqi government has produced and aired a television show called "State of Myths," which shows actors parodying Islamic State, including one scene in which the head of the group is hatched from an egg. And a Syrian media group called Daya Altaseh has performed comedy sketches with actors portraying Islamic State leaders smoking and drinking alcohol; supporters of the terrorist group have reportedly threatened to kill the comics.

5. Dox them

A common technique for dealing with offensive Internet trolls is to shame them by making public their real identities. A pro-Islamic State Twitter account run by a user called "Shami Witness," who claimed to be an Islamic State jihadi, amassed more than 17,000 followers while tweeting propaganda about the terrorist group.

It was shut down in December after Britain's Channel 4 News revealed the man behind the account: an executive in Bangalore, India. The Christian Science Monitor piled on, calling him "a Walter Mitty without the charm -- urging death and destruction by others far from his comfortable home."  

OK, so all this trolling might be good for some laughs, but will it change any minds? 

Jayne Huckerby, an associate professor of clinical law at Duke University who advises institutions on countering violent extremism, warns that reaching the right audience with the proper countermessage is hard. She is particularly concerned about people sending Islamophobic tweets or online messages, which may simply contribute to the feeling of alienation that has driven many recruits into Islamic State's fold. A single meme thrown into the pro-Islamic State echo chamber might do more harm than good.

Berger was skeptical about semantic strategies such as the Daesh insults: “ISIS hardly cares what we call it.” He also didn’t think avoiding the word Islamic was likely to help distance the terrorists from more legitimate aspects of their religion. "For instance, no one thinks using the name 'Aryan Nations' legitimizes a white-only state," he said.

But Marwan Kraidy, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania,  told NPR that presenting a "funny copy" of Islamic State online becomes an effective way of pointing out the group's mixed messages.

"People see the two images," he said. "And within that gap, what you do is you explore the hypocrisies -- the gap between what ISIS claims to be and what it is."

(Corrects service status of British officer in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Maria Lamagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net