UALR Helping Defuse Terrorism Recruitment

The UALR marketing team: (from left) Glen Ritta; Professor Gary Geissler; Cathy Heathscott; Quay Allen-Smith; Monika Bickert, head of product policy with Facebook; Hillary Darby; and Shannon Carroll.
The UALR marketing team: (from left) Glen Ritta; Professor Gary Geissler; Cathy Heathscott; Quay Allen-Smith; Monika Bickert, head of product policy with Facebook; Hillary Darby; and Shannon Carroll.
The UALR marketing team was treated to a
The UALR marketing team was treated to a "walk-by" and brief visit from President Obama and Vice President Biden. (Cathy Heathscott)

Perpetrators of violent extremism successfully recruit potential members through social media, and a campaign is underway to counter their efforts.

The U.S. State Department and Facebook teamed up with a California company called EdVenture to launch a competition aimed at creating ways to defuse global digital recruitment by terrorist organizations like ISIS. Six teams representing five countries advanced to the finals last week in Washington, and one of them was from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The UALR team, led by Professor Gary Geissler, is made up of team members Shannon Carroll, Quay Allen-Smith, Cathy Heathscott, Hillary Darby and Glen Ritta.

The UALR team’s campaign was called 7Strong, based on the world population of roughly 7 billion and the Earth’s seven continents.

Geissler, a professor of marketing and advertising in his 14th year at UALR, said the campaign is based on the idea that terrorists fear people of the world uniting against them, cooperating and collaborating to combat terrorism. The idea behind 7Strong is strength in numbers, he said: “One global community trying to unite to challenge violent extremism.”

The UALR team didn’t win but received enthusiastic feedback and finished the competition as the top American university. It used social media sites and apps such as Facebook, Vine, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo to deliver its message and complemented its digital efforts with traditional media like print ads, fliers and banners. One of the short-term initiatives of the campaign is called #RaiseAFlag, and it encourages social media users to flag and report inappropriate content they encounter.

The competition, the Facebook Global Digital Challenge, included teams making their way through a State Department portion of the contest and others, UALR included, that came through the Facebook side.

The State Department finalists and their campaigns were:

  • Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, F.A.T.E. — From Apathy to Empathy;
  • University of Italian Switzerland, Faces4Heritage; and
  • United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Let’s Talk Jihad.

UALR’s fellow Facebook finalists were:

  • Gulf University for Science & Technology, Kuwait City, Raise Your Words; and
  • Turku School of Economics in Finland, Choose Your Future (the ultimate winner).

UALR beat out teams from numerous high-profile American universities to reach the finals in D.C., including the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles, Boston College, New York University, Virginia Tech, Michigan State University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Mississippi, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the University of New Mexico, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Massachusetts.

In fact, the students in Geissler’s “Advertising: Integrated Marketing Communications” class have had a pretty good competitive run the last two years, winning a national marketing campaign contest in 2013 sponsored by the Taziki’s restaurant chain and then finishing first in a national brand competition sponsored by AT&T in 2014.

Trip highlights for the Trojan marketers last week included a “walk by” and quick greeting from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden outside the White House on Tuesday of last week and meetings with top officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department to discuss their ideas. The group also sat in on a national security briefing in the White House and attended a reception with Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Geissler said the visit with FBI brass entailed a meeting with the agency’s “No. 2 and 3” officials on its top floors, otherwise known as “behind the glass.”

“It’s an honor just to get up there,” Geissler said, noting that the FBI loved his group’s Raise the Flag campaign. Geissler said the FBI and others have become skilled at recognizing child molesters online, for example, but it’s been harder to spot violent extremists before they “go dark.” Terrorists begin recruiting on public sights, “mining” for individuals they believe can be converted, he said.

“They’re very sly about how they do it. They look for certain types of people and certain keywords and phrases. Once they ID someone, they go dark and move everything to secure devices and become very difficult to track.”

The Raise the Flag component to the 7Strong campaign represents a single, unified effort to show people how to recognize these recruiting attempts, Geissler said.