Sep 22, 2014 · 2 minutes

As Obama stands poised to implement his plan to arm Syrian rebels against ISIS, there's another fight playing out between US officials and the Islamic extremist group -- and it's taking place on social media.

In order to counter ISIS's well-oiled social media propaganda machine, which has included everything from beheading videos to Instagram photos of cats next to assault rifles, the State Department has launched a campaign on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr called Think Again Turn Away. It's designed to convince potential terrorist recruits that the world ISIS is trying to build will be a nightmare for young men and women and their families living in regions affected and occupied by the militants.

But Shahed Amanullah, a former State Department official tells the Guardian that these efforts are not only ineffective -- they may be making ISIS' hold on the hearts and minds of Islamic youths even stronger by "feeding the trolls."

“When these people go online, they needed to be treated like trolls, and we keep feeding the trolls,” Amenullah told the outlet.

Part of the US' counter-propaganda strategy is to argue with pro-ISIS accounts on social media. But as anyone who's spent even a little time on Twitter and in comments sections knows, the best way to fight people who post untrue, purposely incendiary and insulting things on the Internet is to ignore them. That's not to say the United States should ignore ISIS's propaganda. But without a sophisticated strategy to combat it, Amanullah argues that the US is only legitimizing ISIS by responding to it in this way.

"There’s nothing these people like more than to see the US government specifically acknowledging and interacting with them online," Amanullah tells the Guardian. "They turn right around to their followers and say, ‘See? We’re every bit as powerful as we say we are, the US government is proof.’"

Rita Katz, who studies the online behavior of jihadi extremists, offers an illustrative example of how the US's attempts to engage with ISIS supporters on social media often go horribly wrong. After a pro-ISIS Twitter account posted images of tortured prisoners from the US-run prison Abu Ghraib, Think Again Turn Away responded with a photo collage depicting American soldiers being friendly with Middle Eastern children, along with the message, “US troops are punished for misconduct, #ISIS fighters are rewarded.”

That launched an Internet flame war between the US-run Twitter account and jihadi extremists over very real and legitimate atrocities committed by the United States. The narrative, controlled as it was by the ISIS supporter, became not about the violence perpetrated today by ISIS, but about abuse carried out by US soldiers a decade earlier under a different president for which the United States has no way to justify itself.

Gary Brecher, aka "The War Nerd," has written extensively for Pando on ISIS' extraordinary abilities to manipulate not only local civilians on social media, but also the mainstream Western media. Now it appears that the State Department's Counterterrorism Communications, which shaped the Think Again Turn Away campaign, is just as susceptible to inadvertently playing into ISIS's hands.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]