As conflict in the Middle East intensifies, the U.S. State Department is sticking to what it knows best: hashtag activism.
The State Department announced Wednesday that it will expand efforts to counter Islamist terrorist groups on social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube.
It will spend $575,046 on a 6-month contract to JTG, Inc., a Virginia-based company that researches extremist websites and tests pilot content to persuade terrorist sympathizers to disavow violence.
This contract is part of a larger social media campaign called Think Again Turn Away, which seeks to reach English-speaking individuals who are in the "antechamber of al Qaeda" -- those who may, but have not yet, taken up arms for jihad.
The campaign is run by the State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an agency created by an executive order in 2011. It commands a budget of $5 million.
The CSCC's most vocal outreach tool is the Twitter account @ThinkAgain_DOS, although it also has a Tumblr account. @ThinkAgain_DOS mostly trawls anti-U.S. cesspools like #CalamityWillBefallUS to argue with America's enemies.
.@AboudouAbdallah I want to remind you what happens to terrorists who target us #CalamityWillBefallUS pic.twitter.com/sFMo0bjTyH— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) June 26, 2014
The CSCC created its own hashtag, #ThinkAgainTurnAway, to disseminate messages about terrorist atrocities.
.@omar00army no one in modern history has intentionally targeted Muslims more than #AlQaeda. #thinkagainturnaway pic.twitter.com/2iQ5RWeYWR— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) June 11, 2014
Recently, the Obama administration and the State Department have used hashtags in response to international crises like the abduction by Boko Haram of 276 (and counting) Nigerian girls and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Their "hashtag diplomacy" has been widely criticized as a symbolic response to problems that require substantial action — the moral equivalent of flashing gang signs, to borrow a favorite phrase of writer Kevin D. Williamson.
To its credit, the State Department's latest foray into hashtag activism seems less like a cop-out than an ineffective public-relations campaign.
"The holy grail [of the CSCC campaign] would be someone saying 'I was a terrorist but I changed my mind because of you,' " Alberto Fernandez, who runs the agency, said. "I don't have a firm example of that."