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Winning the War of Ideas Online

 The Iraqi effort to retake Mosul from ISIS is proceeding apace with not insignificant help from the United States.  But the effort to defeat ISIS globally will be much more complicated and difficult.  As with any war, fighting enemy troops through direct violent engagement is a brutal and bloody affair.  Such confrontations may be necessary to win battles, but they are insufficient to win the larger war.

A counter-terrorism approach that only focuses on killing terrorists will not result in ultimate victory any more than a “counter-tumorism” approach to fighting cancer will.  Both focus too narrowly on the symptoms and miss the underlying disease.  In the case of terrorism, what is needed is a comprehensive soft-power strategy to combat the toxic ideas at its core that deny the dignity and rights of other human beings.

One important tactic in the larger strategy for fighting groups such as ISIS is undermining the terrorists’ poisonous narrative.  If we can replace it with a counter-narrative based on such concepts as universally held fundamental human rights, so much the better.  The only way to counter their narrative and the underlying ideology, though, is with a full-fledged hearts and minds campaign that has greater appeal than the sophisticated social and digital media productions ISIS is posting on-line.

Of course, simply engaging potential recruits on-line is not enough, as the Obama Administration recently concluded.  In 2011, the Administration established within the State Department the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), tasked with “developing an integrated strategic counterterrorism communications initiative and establishing a temporary organization to support certain government-wide communications activities directed abroad.”  Derisively known as “the Weak Squeak,” the CSCC was not the right tool nor was it utilized in the right way to make any serious inroads with the millennial generation of Muslims who are open to ISIS’ world view.  After doubling down on the CSCC in 2015 and expanding its mission to cover similar initiatives undertaken at other federal agencies, the Administration pulled the plug earlier this year.

Meanwhile, without any government support or funding, a digital generation, appalled by ISIS’ brutality and other egregious human rights violations, may be finding its voice online.  For example, consider the novel concept of human rights-based commentaries about popular movies – being produced by millennials for millennials – on  Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its touchstone, has been launched as a YouTube channel that engages digital natives from several continents in the enterprise of creatively using video to educate their peers on the principles of universal human rights. 

In contrast to most online portals created by an older generation of human rights experts – including those in government agencies like the State Department – this innovative educational tactic has a number of unique features.  First, in a departure from the talking heads approach to human rights content, this YouTube channel focuses on reaching a global audience with the proven reach and appeal of professional entertainment content.  In so doing, the platform embraces the reality that digital natives learn more from YouTube than any other Web site due to the importance of visual narrative. 

Second, in an effort to develop future leaders for the growing universal rights movement, the portal focuses on training and empowering digital native content-creators.  The platform features international students sharing their own perspective on the vision of universal rights with their peers on topics ranging from political oppression to racial discrimination to equality for women.  This includes the voices of students from Muslim backgrounds who have already created powerful and moving commentaries on films such as The Stoning of Soraya M and He Named Me Malala.

The struggle for the hearts and minds of those most susceptible to the terrorists’ message will be a generational one, but with the right approach and the right resources, it is eminently winnable and with much less cost in terms of blood and treasure.  It has been rightly said that we should launch ten good ideas for every missile that we fire. is a good example of a platform seeking to serve as a global launch pad for a new generation of voices launching the timeless ideals of human liberty into the digital marketplace.


Retired Gen. Richard B. Myers, is Interim President of Kansas State University and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Matthew Daniels, J.D., Ph.D. is the Chair of Law & Human Rights, at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.


This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post