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White House Invites Millennials To Thwart ISIS' Recruitment Efforts


Hundreds of Americans have gone to join ISIS in Syria, and U.S. officials are desperate to find new ways to blunt the group's recruitment efforts. Extremist recruiters are masters at social media while government officials are still learning to use those tools effectively. So the Obama administration has turned to a group of social media experts - millennials. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The name of the initiative aimed at shaking ISIS's dominance in social media is called Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism. It's premised on the idea that the best way to challenge terrorist groups is to deploy the very people they're trying to recruit - young people.

TONY SGRO: So the Peer 2 Peer model has a level of authenticity and credibility because it's a message created by the peer for the peers.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Tony Sgro, the president of EdVenture Partners, which created this Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism program in more than two dozen universities around the world. He explains how it works.

SGRO: The first thing that happens is students form into an actual social media agency. There's going to be an account director and then there's a research department, social media department; again, this is not make-believe. This is the real world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The students are given a budget of a couple thousand dollars. And with that money they're supposed to create an initiative or product or tool that will challenge violent extremism. Think of it as...


TEMPLE-RASTON: "Mad Men" meets millennials.

SGRO: "Mad Men" did not have the tech savviness that we have with Gen Z and Gen Y. So it's even uber "Mad Men."

TEMPLE-RASTON: And yesterday was pitch day at the State Department.


AMY STORROW: Welcome everybody to Washington. It's really wonderful to see everybody here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: From 23 schools that had signed up for the Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism program this past semester, three schools were chosen to present to a panel of judges at the State Department. And it included a school from Canada, one from Australia and one from the U.S. Amy Storrow, the senior adviser for innovation at the State Department's Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, kicked off the program.


STORROW: I'm now going to introduce the judges.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The judges weren't just State Department officials. They included television and broadcast executives, terrorism experts and academics. And they sat facing the teams on stage like judges from "American Idol." Mount Royal University from Calgary, Canada, was the first to make its pitch.


KADE GRANT-JOHANSEN: Violent extremism is the most compelling issue of our generation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Kade Grant-Johansen, a marketing and management major from Mount Royal. This group decided to start a prevention campaign called the WANT Movement. WANT stands for We Are Not Them. Patty Derbyshire was the faculty adviser.

PATTY DERBYSHIRE: Calgary has one of the oldest, biggest and most historic Muslim populations in Canada.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And for Calgary, the subject of extremism is personal. A handful of people from there were early travelers to Syria to join ISIS.

DERBYSHIRE: So for us this project became about vulnerabilities.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Australian finalist, Curtin University, has an idea for an app to provide an alternative to ISIS's narrative. ISIS claims that to be a good Muslim you have to go to Syria. The Curtin team says you can be a good Muslim at home by doing good works. The app is called 52 JUMAA - 52 Fridays. Friday is the traditional day of prayer for Muslims.


ANDERS: 52 JUMAA is an interactive app which enhances personal identity, social interaction and community spirit.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's one of the international team members laying out the program.


ANDERS: This app mobilizes positive behavior among communities of young Muslims.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Show gratitude by making tea for your mother. Show generosity by feeding a homeless person. The idea is to provide positive reinforcement. And, finally, there was Missouri State University. It had an ambitious program that aimed to unite the world against violent extremism called ONE95.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ONE95 is a digital platform for starting initiatives and receiving support.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It has a social media component, curriculum for teachers and created the hashtag #EndViolentExtremism.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We all have a stake in moving forward. It starts with one person, one community, 195 countries and one goal - end violent extremism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Their platform went live on April 15. Already, people from 90 different countries have reached out to the ONE95 team for help in launching their own challenging extremism initiatives.

DAVID GERSTEN: It's absolutely amazing what college students can do with just $2,000.

TEMPLE-RASTON: David Gersten is the coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security.

GERSTEN: Just the process of this challenge has created viable efforts for countering violent extremism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is exactly the point. Every semester more and more schools are expected to join Peer 2 Peer. Missouri took top honors at the competition yesterday. The school will get a $5,000 scholarship and runners up, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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