It’s alarming that the Department of Defense, which invented the Internet (along with Al Gore, of course), seems to understand so little about how it is used for propaganda — terrorist or otherwise. Recent congressional hearings on terrorism and the Internet indicate a Cold War-era mentality among federal policymakers. They seem to view terrorist propaganda efforts as a monolithic “organized framework” orchestrated by a few Goebbels-like masterminds within Al Qaeda.
In reality, the Internet by its very nature forces far more decentralized and less coordinated strategies, with stunning effectiveness. Step outside of the cloak and dagger worldview of the CIA, Pentagon and even Congress for a moment and consider how the Internet is used by political operatives in American culture. (Well, to clarify: Democratic political operatives … Republicans strategists, while not stuck in the Cold War, are still struggling to get out of the Nineties when it comes to leveraging the Internet.)
For example, Barack Obama has a centralized campaign and Internet operation, and no doubt his campaign would love to “control the message.” However, the unprecedented success which his campaign has enjoyed online has less to do with message control or disciplined operations emanating out of campaign headquarters and more with its cultural mindset that recognizes — and embraces — the new realities of the Internet.
Some of those new realities include decentralization, relinquishing tight control over messaging, and massive social networking. While the Obama campaign, like any other campaign, puts out talking points and spends hours carefully sweating its campaign rhetoric, its real power comes from the millions of supporters who are creating an Obama Echo Chamber in the thousands of social networks and blogs and other online venues without ever having heard the “official message” of the campaign. Go to Digg, the most popular of the social network news aggregator sites, and you’ll find an army of fanatical supporters of Obama promoting news and stories and message in support of the campaign that have no direct connection to official Obamaland. Are some of those messages offkey? Sure. But in the aggregate, minor offkey messages are drowned out in the larger sea of support for their candidate.
Why does this matter? How does it relate to terrorist propaganda online? Because if you understand the success of the Obama Internet campaign, then you will understand the operational value of the Internet for propaganda and grassroots recruitment – regardless of who is behind the campaign, whether it be an American politician or international terrorist.
No doubt al Qaeda would like to “control its message” as much as Barack Obama would like to control his campaign message. However, al Qaeda cannot control the Internet anymore than Obama. Its propagandists can certainly contribute to the online echo chamber, and can even be regarded with certain awe among lesser lights and wild-eyed potential recruits, but the effectiveness of terrorist propaganda on the Internet goes far beyond any specific chain of command within al Qaeda.
Unfortunately, our federal government is approaching its online counterterrorism efforts the same way it has too often approached its efforts to eliminate al Qaeda physically – chop off the head and the beast will die. Get Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda will die. The government’s strategy is to try to disrupt or shut down al Qaeda’s online propaganda operations. Which is like trying to cut off the head of a hydra.