In the decade since 9/11, the U.S. government has used a wide variety of tactics against terrorists. It’s invaded countries where they operated (and ones where they didn’t). It’s tried to win the backing of foreign populations in which the terrorists hide. And it’s sent commandos and deadly flying robots to kill them one by one.
One thing it hasn’t done, until now: troll them.
Within the State Department, a Silicon Valley veteran has quietly launched an improbable new initiative to annoy, frustrate and humiliate denizens of online extremist forums. It’s so new that it hasn’t fully taken shape: Even its architects concede it hasn’t fleshed out an actual strategy yet, and accordingly can’t point to any results it’s yielded. Its annual budget is a rounding error. The Pentagon will spend more in Afghanistan in the time it takes you to finish reading this sentence.
But it also represents, in the mind of its creator, a chance to discourage impressionable youth from becoming terrorists — all in an idiom they firmly understand. And if it actually works, it might stand a chance of cutting off al-Qaida’s ability to replenish its ranks at a time when it looks to be reeling.
The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.” Think of it as strategic trolling, in pursuit of geopolitical pwnage.