Twitter in a Teapot?

An article last month in Foreign Policy brought to light a “full-blown Twitter war” between the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) and a “prominent” jihadi named Mu’awiya al-Qahtani using the feed service under the handle @Al_Bttaar. Written by Will McCants, who helped set up the DOT operation, the tempest in a teakettle is easy to miss for his transparently self-aggrandizing story about how “there’s one thing [the DOT] is doing successfully: making the right enemies”. That is, McCants asserts, DOT has diminished @al_Bttaar and his confederates so aggressively that the virtual jihadi has had no alternative but to attack the DOT online. What more proof do we need of the State Department’s effectiveness?

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that McCants has the equation exactly backwards: @Al_Bttaar in fact needs the State Department as an enemy far more than the State Department needs him. And beneath that are hidden the depressingly low stakes involved.  While it is true a single individual or a small group can be inspired to attack the United States or Western targets by online invective, in the case of the battle between the State Department and @Al_Bttaar, the numbers involved are literally the high hundreds.

McCants assertion that the DOT is “making the right enemies” is a textbook example of a bureaucracy perpetuating a problem it was created to solve, like force protection for a forward-deployed combat unit. Becoming a target is not per se a measure of success. DOT should be drying up support for @al_Bttaar, eliminating it, or diverting its attention. It’s true, McCants writes, that @Al_Bttaar’s attempt to attack DOT’s Twitter account failed (as have similar, follow-on attacks against other Twitter users). Here his failure does not point to the State Department’s success but to @Al_Bttaar’s inherent weakness and to the paltry stakes involved: fewer than 150 people were involved in the attack on DOT’s Twitter account.

In fact, McCants buried near the end of the article the critical fact that @Al_Bttaar registers a little more than 1,500 Twitter followers. That 150 of them were willing to storm the State Department’s virtual Bastille demonstrates what I suspect about them: in terms of pure numbers, they are much less likely “followers” in the traditional sense of the word than those who registered with the account simply to keep tabs on this virtual jihadi. (To give you another sense of scale, the DOT had logged 7,000 “engagements” by 2012, according to the State Department. The DOT has been online since 2006.)

A few simple numbers can put this into perspective. Of 22 countries in the Arab League, assume that at least 10 intelligence and law enforcement agencies and foreign embassies will sign on as “followers” to monitor @Al_Bttaar. That’s a low estimate and we’re already at 220, or nearly 15 percent of followers. Apply the same formula to the roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries, and you have nearly a third at 500. Expand that number in any number of reasonable ways – accounting for headquarters, redundancies, international organizations, academia, contractors – and now you can begin to imagine that the only true followers of @Al_Bttaar are the 150 people who attacked the State Department’s Twitter account.

And for this the State Department coordinates 50 civil servants, spending how much money, through the interagency, to fight?

Despite my incredulous tone I’m not entirely skeptical of the DOT endeavor. McCants simply doesn’t make a very persuasive case. It’s easy, when hunting bad guys, to obsess over what you’re seeing at the end of your scope. But when you’re that narrowly focused, you can miss the larger picture and the bigger questions: In the end, what is DOT and the State Department trying to accomplish? How influential are Twitter jihadis like @Al_Bttaar? Should we shut them down at their source or attack their message in front of much larger audiences (Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya), which we can command?

A 2012 study published by the Middle East Journal suggested that DOT’s endeavors – reaching out in online fora – did very little to change minds. But I’d argue that very little is still a place to start. This survey indicated that 4.8 percent expressed positive views of U.S. foreign policy or the DOT, but the study was a single snapshot (2009) of a very specific place (Egypt). A survey like this is only useful if it is duplicated and controlled. Egypt, for its part, is a very unique political environment. Moreover, those “poor” responses to DOT’s outreach in fact mirror overall public opinion in Egyptian polls about US foreign policy as recorded in 2008. So while seeming discouraging on its face, in reality this article actually tells us that we don’t really know how effective the DOT is – or could be.

That’s because changing public opinion takes concrete, specific actions and its success can only be measured fairly (and accurately) over time. I’m not yet convinced that Twits like @Al_Bttaar are worth all that effort. But that’s because we haven’t figured out a way to measure our effectiveness yet. Social media has given us the illusion of hard data, analytics, and control when what it’s really done is flooded us with more raw, decontextualized numbers. Now it’s up to us to find the meaning in all that madness.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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