Countering the Virtual Caliphate: The State Department's Performance

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Washington, DC
July 13, 2016

Unknown ObjectChairman Royce, thank you for that kind introduction. I am delighted to be here. And I want to thank you personally for your interest and support of public diplomacy. The 21st century is the public diplomacy century and your support is vital.

Ranking Member Engel, Chairman Royce, distinguished committee members, thank you for the opportunity to have me appear today to discuss the role of public diplomacy in countering violent extremism. This hearing comes at a critical time in our fight against ISIL and violent extremism.

In just the last few weeks from Istanbul to Baghdad to Dhaka we have once again seen the terrorists' wanton brutality and disregard for the lives of innocent people. Yet at the same time as we have seen these attacks the narrative is changing.  There are signs of progress in our efforts to counter ISIL's message. The amount of anti-ISIL content on social media platforms is increasing, while ISIL's own content as the ranking member mentioned is decreasing. The Virtual Caliphate itself is shrinking.

 Across the U.S. Government our strategy for countering ISIL in the digital world has become more coordinated and more effective. The tech companies as well have stepped up their efforts at our behest. I would like to outline a few of the steps we are taking, some of which you have heard about already and note at the same time that much needs to be done. Now I think as folks know, this past fall we did an intensive review of what was CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which was formed in 2010 to fight a different enemy. That was al Qaeda. But they saw that this new enemy I SIL was coming on board and we began to shift.

So we evolved into the Global Engagement Center with an executive order signed by the President, and that Global Engagement Center has two missions. One is to coordinate anti-ISIL and anti-extremist violent messaging within the government, and the second, again as both of you gentlemen have mentioned, is to enable third party voices--to optimize them, to amplify them--because their voices are more powerful against ISIL than ours. That is the core insight that made for this change is that our voice is not necessarily the best voice to be out there.

And now we see this, the tide turning. Now I am just going to take exception and back to something the chairman said in the beginning of the hearing, this idea that the Internet is awash with ISIL or pro- ISIL content. There is a RAND study that came out recently, it is confirmed by our own GEC study that there is now six times ao much anti -ISIL content on the Internet as pro-ISIL content.

When I started in this job it was one to one. The tide is shifting. This idea that Twitter is awash with ISIL content, we did an analysis recently: 0.0124 percent of Twitter's content is pro-ISIL content. So- - and these beheading videos that people talk about, every week I have a briefing about ISIL's top ten and I had a briefing yesterday and I asked to see any new videos. And the problem was that the videos are being taken down so quickly that we don't even get to monitor them.

So I think this narrative that we are losing the information war with ISIL is wrong. In fact, mainstream Muslims are winning the information war with ISIL and that is why we have seen that great boost. of content. So--but this issue faces public diplomacy all around the world. There is a digital iron curtain going up around the world. There is a gigantic increase in disinformation at the same time coupled with countries that are decreasing their free speech in their areas. This is a gigantic challenge for democracies and it is something I am happy to talk about as well.

So--and we believe the most effective tool against this is the free flow of information and independent press which we support. So this is long term and important work. I am happy to talk about it all. We will face setback s I know, but I believe that we are embarked in the right direction and we have the right strategy. And I want to thank you again for having me here. I know we have been trying to do this for a while and I look forward to taking and answering your questions.