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West Point Students' Plan To Counter ISIS Online Strategy


A big part of the U.S. fight against ISIS is happening online. And the U.S. government is looking for ideas from all corners to try to figure out how to get better at countering the ISIS propaganda that is so central to the group's recruiting strategy. To that end, the U.S. State Department sponsored a contest challenging college students to come up with the best ways to beat ISIS at its own online game. A group of cadets from West Point got second prize in the competition. One of them is Cadet C.J. Drew. He joins me now to talk more about the competition. Thanks so much for being with us.

C.J. DREW: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We should point out there were 45 entries into this contest. A group of Pakistani students got first prize. A team from Switzerland took third. You and your fellow cadets got second prize. Describe your project.

DREW: So we used a sort of multi platform system, a little bit of Facebook, a little bit of Twitter and a website. And we were able to reach out to people that, you know, heard and talked about different things that they may not have otherwise, just like ISIS uses things like trending hash tags to bring their message to people who are just looking up average news and, sort of, things not related to ISIS.

MARTIN: So you were inserting yourself in conversation. So you would search out a particular hash tag that you thought might be really sticky in a community of potential jihadists and then insert yourself in that conversation?

DREW: Yes, we did. We even actually reached out to people who we knew were spokespeople for ISIS, and whatnot. We sort of almost tricked them in a way into re-tweeting our message because our message was sort of unclear at first and it drew people to our website. In one certain case we pulled out a Hadith, a, you know - a saying of Muhammad about jihad and where he describes jihad as standing up before unjust rulers - and this Hadith and part of Islam is not as well-known as the ones that ISIS use. They are much more violent. And people responded, and people had never really heard about it this way. People actually would write to us that it was a whole different point of view. And, you know, well, it didn't really matter what jihad actually meant or what these very specific terms actually meant. But it meant, you know, an opportunity for people to talk and engage with people in a way that only social media can really provide.

MARTIN: We should point out, none of you were - are Muslim.

DREW: No, but we worked with a lot of Muslim cadets in order to make sure that not only we understood what we were doing, but our message would be received in the best way.

MARTIN: I'm curious; what was the identity of your page?

DREW: The identity of the page was just the project name which was, for the entirety of the project, a secret and not related to West Point, which is what made it so successful and we're hoping to keep working with as we move forward as well.

MARTIN: I suppose, if we keep talking about it, then we're going to basically out you as behind this whole thing and then it...

DREW: Well, we hope the idea, sort of, outlives us. Again, as you said before, none of us are Muslims. And we hope to work more with Muslims and have, you know, sort of the Muslim community help take it over as well because many people - we have reached out to different imams and whatnot - have been very interested as giving them this platform that they didn't have before to not only talk with other Muslims across the world, but also get out this message that many people, even in America, don't really seem to understand, that so many Muslims have stood up against ISIS and spoken out. And that message is kind of going unheard right now in the media.

MARTIN: What'd you learn? What would you do differently? If this project lives on beyond this competition, I imagine there are things you'd want to change or refine.

DREW: I think definitely. I think - thinking about how to get the right people for this job. I mean, we were only 16 kids, essentially in a class that met every other day. And if we knew how big this could have gotten when we had almost a million impressions and views on Facebook alone, then we would've definitely reached out to get more help from the beginning because there's so many people that want to help and so many people that can contribute to this fight. I think that's definitely what we would've done is started bigger from earlier on.

MARTIN: C.J. Drew. He's part of a team at West Point, a team who developed a social media strategy to counter ISIS propaganda. C.J., thanks so much for talking with us.

DREW: Thank you very much. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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