Lessons in Trolling Jihadists for the State Department

The State Department's latest counterterrorism effort is apparently an Internet trolling (no, we're not kidding) initiative called Viral Peace. From whom should the government learn to troll?

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"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," writes Wired's Spencer Ackerman today, reporting on the government's Viral Peace initiative, which sounds more apt to take down a World of Warcraft guild rather than a terrorist network. Ackerman writes:

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.

A former Silicon Vallley geek named Shahed Amanullah is heading the operation, which "has mere thousands of dollars in annual seed money so far." Ackerman adds: "The best the State Department can do is train good trolls — which Amanullah began to do this spring."

Taking all that into account, the expectations of this troll initiative can't be set too terribly high, but it's worth it for two reasons: the first being that online forums are actually one place where jihadists meet up and hang out.  If you recall, back in May what looked to be a poorly Photoshopped photo of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed popped up on a jihadist forum, spurring attention from the Pentagon. If this is where the jihadists are, this is where the trolls should be.

But why trolling? Would-be jihadists are actually emotionally wimpy. People who post to the forums are "are massive narcissists [who] need constant ego boosts," Jarret Brachman, a researcher of online Jihadism, told Ackerman.  The thought here is, if you take away the ego boosts and instead, troll, make fun of, and break jihadis souls online--they won't develop followings to support them in terrorist acts. Viral Peace's creator, Amanullah says, "he wants to use 'logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.'"

Jihadis work to "keep the momentum, the anger and the virulence going in forums, and they have a disproportionate impact, so if you can get rid of them, it’ll pay dividends," adds Brachman.

If there's one thing we do know from spending our waking moments on the Internet, it's what makes a good troll. And if the State Department truly wants the best trolls (and troll techniques) for the job, they should have a look at this list:

The State Department of Hawaii: "We'll Need That in Writing"

Trolling Style: Attrition. Back in May, the State Department of Hawaii was so sick of being asked for Obama's birth certificate by Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett that they trolled him. Like the way a kitten plays with a ball of yarn (kittens do, that we're told), they asked Bennett to write out his ridiculousness before they conceded the documents. Oh, and did we mention the media got ahold of those trolly memos--and no, we don't think it was Bennett's choice to supply them.

Possible Jihadist Outcome: Making a jihadist actually spell out ridiculousness on paper...repeat until realization of ridiculousness hits.

Hanna Rosin: The Obitchuary

Trolling Style: Irreverence. In February, while we were all mourning the death of Jan Berenstain, who penned The Berenstain Bears series, Rosin was busy penning a screed about Berenstain's portrayal of Mama Bear. She wrote:

Mama Bear’s only pleasures in life seem to come from being the Tracy Flick of domesticity, making up charts for good behavior and politeness, encouraging her children to use pretentious British affections such as "terribly sorry" and "lovely, my dear." ...

What I do recall is throwing the book away in a fury during my second pregnancy, lest my subsequent children find it and become as attached as the first one did and I find myself once again, night after night, speaking about butterflies as a stand-in for human sex.

Possible Jihadi Outcome: If Rosin can shame you into hating Berenstain, imagine what she could do with people actually worth hating?

Rush Limbaugh: Rush Limbaugh

Trolling Style: Measured absurdity; inducing exhaustion. Step 1: Say something you know is insane. Step 2: Watch your haters whip themselves into frenzy and exhaust themselves trying to argue with ridiculousness. Step 3: Quietly apologize. Step 4: Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

See: Bane vs. Bain. See: Fluke, Sandra. See: Career.

Possible Jihadist Outcome: Jihadists become liberals.

Katie Roiphe: Spank Killer

Trolling Style: Denial and Frustration. Just a few months ago, Roiphe accomplished a coup in making the idea of spanking (which was sizzling because of 50 Shades of Grey) passe while, at the same time, enraging people with a terrible hypothesis when she wrote that piece for Newsweek. She explained at the time:

In our post-ironic era, one of the things people criticize is, 'This piece is so boring,' or 'This piece is so stupid." What they really mean by that is, 'This piece made us kind of uncomfortable,' which to me is a sign of a successful little polemical analysis. ... I think it's a good sign, a positive sign and a healthy sign when you write something that enrages, irritates and appalls so many people.

Possible Jihadist Outcome: Roiphe makes a grand, incorrect theory about jihadists. Jihadists are too busy trying to prove her wrong to have time to consider jihad.

Daniel Mendelsohn: You're Not That Smart

Trolling Style: Intelligence and the Long Read. Remember how many people, smart people, were so angry when Mendelsohn wrote that Mad Men takedown in The New York Review of Books? Well he took something so dear and precious and close to their brains, and managed to upset its biggest fans--and for those that stuck with it 'til the very end of the long read, he totally called you guys Glens.

Possible Jihadistst Outcome: Possible hate-watching of Mad Men; Head-scratching; Profound thinking.

Reddit; 4Chan: Complete Pwnage. 

Trolling Style: Strength in numbers. Without them, we may never have found out how to backtrace the Internet, or which little kids were totally mean to that bus monitor. And if there is a brood mother of trolls, it's these forums.

Possible Jihadist Outcome: Epic Lolz. World Peace, and the creation of Utopia ... or Planet Earth becomes a wasteland.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.