A team of West Point U.S. military academy cadets recently developed an online strategy to go undercover to steer young Muslims away from terrorist recruiters. Their social media campaign was part of the "Peer to Peer [P2P]: Challenging Extremism" initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Facebook and EdVenture Partners, and hosted by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participating teams were tasked with using digital tools to counter violent extremist narratives and reach those most likely to get enmeshed in ISIS tactics and missions.
"We post after Friday prayer, when many people would be home and at their computers," Cadet C.J. Drew told Christian Headlines.
Unlike the competing university teams from around the world, the West Point group, which took second place, worked undercover, reports Fox News.
"Since our website was targeting what we called 'fence-sitters,' I think if individuals who visited our social media platforms knew that they were being produced by anyone in the U.S. government, then the site would lose credibility," Lt. Col. Bryan Price, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, told Fox News.
Price's team members designed a recruiting strategy through which they went into online chatrooms and websites where potential target people gather, then engaged and guided them toward websites and Twitter pages containing moderate Muslim voices. Those sites include a website, Facebook page and Twitter account the team created, which remain in effect and secret even now that the contest is over.
"One of the U.S. Government's highest priorities is preventing and challenging violent extremism, and we realize we cannot do this alone," said Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
West Point competed against 44 other U.S. and international universities, comprising 900-plus students, and received a scholarship of $3,000 for placing second. Team members include Austin Montgomery, Brittany Scofield, C.J. Drew, Jordan Isham and David Weinmann, and the project will be passed on to a new class of cadets when the graduate.
While two of the cadets involved with the project have studied Arabic, they turned to fellow cadets of the Muslim faith for help identifying and understanding ISIS' target audience, cadets told Religion News.
Psychologists reported helped the West Point team determine which colors to use on their Facebook page. They found that green and black would be effective colors to use; green because of its sacred nature in the religion of Islam and black because it is a commonly worn color among terrorists groups.
In two months, the cadets' Facebook page gained more than 900,000 users in more than 25 countries, according to Christian Headlines.
The first-place winner was Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, reports Fox News, while the bronze went to Universita della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland.
Each competing group was given a $2,000 budget and a semester-long timeframe to complete their projects. The basic instructions were to create an effective online campaign to stem digital radicalization.