Athenian Alum Creates Open Dialogue Platform at Westpoint

Originally published in The Pillar, Athenian’s student newspaper

by Priya Canzius ’16

This past fall, Athenian alum Cadet David Weinmann ’14 helped to develop a social media platform called Let’s Talk Jihad with 15 other classmates at The United States Military Academy at West Point.

“The idea was essentially to provide an unbiased forum where people could come and discuss Jihad, Islam, current events, the Islamic state, [and more],” Weinman said. “We moderated discussions and invited vetted experts to join the forum to provide their opinion.”

Athenian teacher Kal Balaven was one of the experts contacted.

“I contacted [Balaven] because I knew that he was aware of the history behind some of the origins of these radical groups; and because he is an educator and knows how to reach youth,” Weinmann said.

According to NPR, “a big part of the U.S. fight against ISIS is happening online, [and] the U.S. government is looking for ideas from all corners to try to figure out how to get better at countering the ISIS propaganda that is so central to the group’s recruiting strategy.”

Rather than using social media as a recruitment tool, Let’s Talk Jihad uses its platform to reach out to youth around the world.

“Our group also reached out to Imams and community leaders in the US as well as the UK and we are still trying to get leaders and other nations on-board,” Weinmann said. “We also worked with instructors in the Arabic and Middle Eastern history departments as well as Muslim cadets here at the academy. We sought out people we were confident would be able to provide advice to troubled youth.”

Because ISIS uses its extensive social media network to appeal to the younger generation, Let’s Talk Jihad’s goal is to redirect youth to less radical solutions.

“Most people do not know the presence that the Islamic State has online,” Weinmann said. “The internet is powerful. It is far more powerful than most of us think and the Islamic State uses it better than any other terror group… There is no single profile that people who join ISIS fit; anyone is susceptible to their propaganda.”

To combat this influence, the U.S. Department of State created the Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) initiative. The goal of P2P, according to its website, is for “university students from around the world [to] develop and execute campaigns and social media strategies against extremism.”

Photo taken by EdVetnture Partners

Photo taken by EdVetnture Partners

Weinmann and his fellow cadets won second prize in this competition for their Let’s Talk Jihad page.

“We knew about the [P2P] initiative being put on by the State Department (DOS) when we started,” Weinmann said. “We looked at previous campaigns and wanted to build something that was different, something that would specifically target the audience we were reaching out for, which we called fence-sitters.”

Fence-sitters, according to Weinmann, are people who are “having thoughts about joining the radical group [ISIS].”

“These fence-sitters are what ultimately fuels ISIS’ ranks and are part of what makes them such a force,” Weinmann said. “We wanted to talk to these individuals before they became radical and traveled to join ISIS.”

On the page itself, the cadets chose to remain anonymous.

“We tried not to make assertions in our social media posts,” Weinmann said. “We just asked questions, and as a result we hid our biases. We used articles, stories and pictures from a number of sources, and some of our posts were in Arabic in order to keep things ambiguous.”

Furthermore, according to Weinmann, in order to “gain legitimacy among fence-sitters… [Weinman and his classmates] were careful to try and distance the campaign from the military academy and DOS.”

“By leaving our site anonymous we were able to talk with people without having them immediately discredit anything that we said,” Weinmann said. “Teenagers in Cairo won’t take advice from the US Army! [The goal is to help] people come to an understanding that what ISIS is talking about is really a bastardized version of Islam in order to further their political goals.”

However, the cadets’ identities were publicized in many online news outlets in early February.

“We had asked the DOS keep our identities a secret, but that didn’t work out once the media got involved; we did not intend to have the project go public,” Weinmann said.

According to Weinmann, “it’s still too early to tell the effect that [the media attention] will have on the campaign. [Moreover, the cadets] still update the page, but less frequently.”

Let’s Talk Jihad has made an impact on social media.

“We knew that we were making an impact when ISIS members started telling members of their group not to come to our page or listen to what we were saying,” Weinmann said. “They also- may or may not – have tried to shut down our Twitter. We aren’t entirely sure since it was anonymous, but we believe it was them.

Although Weinmann and his fellow cadets currently maintain the Let’s Talk Jihad page, according to Weinmann, they “are looking to turn the campaign over to a group that would be able to run it full-time and provide even better support than we can.”

“With our limited time and resources, we don’t see ourselves maintaining it forever,” Weinmann said.

Balaven believes that the use of social media is important to redirect fence-sitters and supports the cadets’ mission.

“It was a pretty phenomenal thing that [David and his classmates] did,” Balaven said. “He tried to find a non-violent way of trying to use social media to try to get those that would sympathize or empathize with ISIS into a place where they can dialogue and get their frustration out outside of those venues.”