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Everything I need to know about social media I learned from Al Qaeda

October 14, 2010

One compelling argument I always make when talking to military leaders or organizations about the importance of engaging on-line is the simple fact that in large part, our terrorist friends overseas and in our own backyard continue to do it better. Scandalous you say? Hardly. Most things, including marketing, are much easier when you don’t have to worry about ethics or standards getting in your way.

All good guerilla movements depend upon mobilizing a community to take action. Social media is about bringing communities together so it’s no surprise that terrorist cells would view social platforms as key places to get their dispersed community together, to share information, and  – of critical importance for a an organization that also mobilizes its members to become suicide bombers – to recruit.

A recent story at entitled “Al Qaeda Wants to Be Friends” does an excellent job of highlighting some of the various sites where terrorists are engaging, including popular social media platforms Facebook and You Tube. I have my own personal conflicts with the fact that terrorist profiles and pages are allowed to remain on major platforms. My view is that they should all be removed if these platforms expect to maintain any standards as it relates to content. But I also know the open source intelligence benefits that can be derived from these sites, too, and that they’re not overlooked by military intelligence.

So rather than debate those pros and cons I’ll stick to what I know – social media. And point out a few things that we can learn from how our enemies are using these sites:

1. Move fast. We’re hindered by our own, largely good policies here, but the fact of the matter is that enemy propaganda all too easily trumps the truth, especially overseas. The only way to become close to reaching the speed needed while still adhering to military or corporate releasing protocols is to lower the release authority for posting online content to the lowest level possible while still ensuring accuracy and competency. Sounds impossible? I don’t think so. There are those people in your organization who understand your mission and protocols well enough even at some of the lowest levels in the chain of the command. Place those people in charge of your social media postings and empower them to use the content they get when it comes.

2. Cross post. They’re not called terrorist networks for no reason. The ability for many terrorists to link to, and pull in, a variety of online content is key to their success. They understand what it takes to be “viral” and they have their own “brand agents” going out there and getting information onto a variety of sites and platforms. If you have information to share, don’t just host it on one platform – find a way to make it work across a variety of online sites, and not just the usual suspects.

3. Own it. Terrorists actually set up their own web sites and forums to talk about terrorist things. Sure, they might gather on Facebook, but they’ll also gather at al-Shumukh al-Islam Network. And while I do think forums are a bit too 1990-esque for the average American media consumer, I do think today’s government and private sector organizations are focusing too much on their presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter and not creating collaborative spaces within their own web sites or networks. Your online reputation is too important – and too big – to turn over to one site. Also make sure you “own” your own piece of the Internet playground, and work to make it a space where your audience wants to be.

4. Be persuasive. Al Qaeda takes this to a totally new level – they just outright lie. Ask any jihadist and they’ll gleefully tell you how they’re winning the war on every front. They’ll also forge photos, shoot their own citizens, and more – there are no boundaries. Clearly I’m not advocating for that level of manipulation or for any level of propaganda to enter our own media efforts. But we could stand to go out on a limb at times and be a bit more persuasive about our content. What I find among today’s savvy media consumers is that they’re able to carefully analyze a piece of content that’s designed not just to educate or inform them about a topic, but also to persuade them to a specific position. If you have a cause to champion, do it. Our military and government efforts in this regard are really lacking, and we need to reach out with the kind of passion and aggression our mission warrants.

5. Always think growth. Al Qaeda and terrorist networks are supremely focused on increasing the size and strength of their networks. They do this through a variety of tactics but the broad goal is always focused on the need to grow. Any social media campaign needs to be poised to grow. You can have small goals and milestones but you also have to have a big picture focus. The Internet is viral, and a good message should have growth potential. Focus your efforts on expansion, think big, and mobilize your audience to get you there.

This post has been intentionally cheeky, but don’t doubt the seriousness and the reality of what terrorist cells are actively doing on-line every day. It should be a challenge and a wake-up call to anyone working in the military or defense social media spaces – we simply have to do better.

I believe that how we tell our story – in mainstream news and online – is of critical importance to supporting our Soldiers who put their lives on the line each and every day. I have a special place in my heart for military communicators and especially those who truly understand the importance of their mission to winning the War on Terrorism. If you work in military communications you need to think aggressively and seriously about how to better tell your story. Today’s war of words is increasingly happening online, and it’s a space too important to neglect.

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