White House Worries Extremists Are Winning The Propaganda War

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The Obama administration's effort to counter violent extremism includes trying to find a way to fight the messages of sectarian strife coming from groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's a reminder that the fight against violent extremism is largely a battle of ideas. The most vital weapon for extremists is no particular technology but simply the ability to recruit. And so the Obama administration is trying to win the fight not only in Iraq and Syria but on Twitter and YouTube. At a White House summit this week, President Obama said opponents of extremist groups have to do a better job of getting out their message. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama points to a lot of different factors that helped give rise to extremist groups, including a lack of economic opportunity and political repression in places like North Africa and the Middle East. Obama told an international gathering at the State Department yesterday another problem is sectarian strife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Violent extremists and terrorists thrive when people of different religions or sects pull away from each other and are able to isolate each other and label them as they, as opposed to us.

HORSLEY: Obama argues diverse societies have to work to counteract that. In the United States, for example, Muslims are a relatively small share of the population. So the president says many Americans may not know any Muslims personally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: So the image they get of Muslims or Islam is in the news. And given the existing news cycle, that can give a very distorted impression.

HORSLEY: Likewise, Obama says many Muslims around the world have a distorted view of America. Like President Bush before him, Obama has repeatedly stressed that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, but extremist groups like ISIS spread the opposite message through what Obama calls propaganda designed to brainwash young Muslims.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorist Twitter accounts, it's all designed to target today's young people online.

HORSLEY: The White House wants to fight fire with Firefox, harnessing the same high-tech communication tools to spread the word of other Muslims, advocating peace, tolerance and inclusion. Last week, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, met with technology entrepreneurs in California who were eager to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA MONACO: We are not going to be able to combat these messages with single press releases or voices from governments. These need to be bottom-up voices that are able to be heard in the platforms that the vulnerable communities, who are subject to radicalization, are operating on.

HORSLEY: The White House messaging strategy isn't only focused on Muslims. The president's also speaking to a larger American audience as he tries to play down sectarian strife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: The world knows about the attack on the Jews of the kosher supermarket in Paris. We need to recall the worker at that market, a Muslim, who hid Jewish customers and saved their lives. And when he was asked why he did it, he said, we are brothers.

HORSLEY: That's the kind of peaceful Muslim voice Obama wants to spotlight, the kind that doesn't often make the news. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.