WASHINGTON: The Obama administration on Friday announced a wide-ranging overhaul of its efforts to respond to online propaganda from the Islamic State after months of acknowledgments that it had largely failed in its attempts to counter extremist recruitment and exhortations to violence on social media.
The administration has emphasized that it needs the assistance of some of the nation’s biggest technology companies, and a group of top White House and national security officials flew to California on Friday to plead their case with executives.
In a reflection of just how urgent the White House views the efforts, the discussions involved officials like Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff; Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch; James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence; James B. Comey, the FBI director; and Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser. They met with Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, as well as top executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.
“Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said before the California meeting began.
A task force will be created in the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to coordinate the government’s new effort.
The State Department announced the creation of a center to respond to disinformation from extremist groups around the world by highlighting their misdeeds and creating positive images of the West.
After the terrorist attack last year that killed 130 people in Paris, President Barack Obama delivered a series of speeches seeking to reassure the country while demanding rapid changes within the administration to improve responses to jihadi propaganda.
Obama has been speaking for some time about the need for the West to more effectively counter the austere and apocalyptic pronouncements of Islamist extremists. At the United Nations in September, he told world leaders that “ideologies are not defeated with guns; they are defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.”
But the State Department has largely foundered in its efforts to fashion the kind of war room that would effectively counter the propaganda flowing out of the Islamic State, which is widely seen as adept at using social media to recruit and inspire followers.
For help with these challenges, the administration turned Friday to Silicon Valley. “I do have a lot of confidence that those companies that are run by patriotic Americans are not interested in seeing their tools or their technology used by terrorists to harm innocent Americans,” Earnest said.
Those executives, however, are in charge of global corporations whose revenues are increasingly derived from people outside the United States. The executives have long pushed back on demands by governments to censor posts, provide access to user accounts, or hand over the keys to encryption technologies.
If the companies begin to work with the government to monitor and remove posts or create anti-terrorism counternarratives, they might have a harder time resisting similar requests from foreign governments.
“It’s a slippery slope with free speech where if you start making exceptions, where do you stop and where do you draw the line?” said Emma Llanso, a director at the Center for Democracy in Technology, a think tank.
She said the consequence could be an erosion of trust by consumers.That erosion of trust began in the wake of revelations from Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, who showed previous coordination among some technology companies with U.S. surveillance efforts. Executives are eager to avoid a repeat.
There is also the technological challenge of sifting through vast amounts of user-generated content in different languages on a growing number of social media platforms.
Law enforcement officials for years have expressed frustration that technology companies are increasingly creating products like smartphones with encryption technologies that make it difficult, if not impossible for the government to monitor conversations. But the discussion Friday, while touching on encryption issues, was expected to focus largely on social media and how technology companies could more effectively police their platforms.
Some former top administration officials now work at prominent technology firms, including Jay Carney, a former White House press secretary, who is now a senior vice president at Amazon. Megan Smith, the administration’s chief technology officer, who worked at Google, and Alexander Macgillivray, the administration’s deputy chief technology officer, who worked at Twitter, both attended the meeting Friday in California.
“This meeting is the latest in the administration’s continuing dialogue with technology providers and others to ensure we are bringing our best private and public sector thinking to combating terrorism,” said Melanie R. Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.