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August 15, 2017

Pakistani students at Lahore University of Management Sciences competed in a competition at the State Department in Washington last month. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)

* This story originally aired on WGBH News on March 2, 2016

While its record of battling propaganda online is not a strong one, the U.S. government has enlisted Pakistani, American, and Italian college students to find ways to counter violent extremist groups like white nationalist organizations and ISIS.

There are two battlefields in the war on ISIS. One involves weapons, the other, apps. ISIS is winning that last one, attracting young people through its deft use of social media. The U.S. is trying to counter that with the help of tech-savvy college students from around the world, brought to Washington in an unusual competition.

In Pakistan, the threat of terrorism is something students have learned to live with.

“We actually have to go to the university under the shelter of some snipers who are sitting on the roof of the university. It's really terrible,” said Basil Saeed, a political science major at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Saeed says Pakistani students are growing numb to the violence.

“We have got used to it now,” he said. “But when we tell others that we have to be actually protected, especially in our university, they just shocked.”

So Saeed and his classmates are doing something about it.

Team FATE, a campaign which stands for From Apathy To Empathy is part of an international competition sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Facebook and EdVentures Partners.

In Washington last month, three finalists presented their anti-radicalization projects, including West Point cadets (@LetsTalkJihad), Italian students from the University of Lugano in Switzerland (@Faces4Heritage) and Team FATE (@fate_campaign).

“We found that it was a dire need to engage people in a dialogue against extremism,” Saeed told hundreds of people packed into an auditorium at the State Department.

On stage, the Pakistani students explained their campaign against extremism, which promotes education, tourism and poetry.

The group is targeting 4,000 students at their university, urging them to take a peace pledge. They're also reaching a global audience with a campaign on Twitter, a favorite platform of ISIS. So far, students from more than 90 countries have participated.

“When we're confronted with an issue like countering extremist ideologies and messaging, we know that we need to work with partners,” said Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State of Educational Affairs and a judge in this competition. Ryan says the State Department hopes to learn how to identify at-risk, disaffected youth from the very demographic it's trying to reach.

“These students know how to do that better than I do and better than many of us in the State Department might be able to,” Ryan admitted.

Related: Who Are The Students The U.S. Government Enlisted To Battle Violent Extremism Online?

The U.S. government has been widely criticized for lacking perspective about the nature of violent extremism and backing futile campaigns.

Nasser Weddady, a Middle East consultant who studies radicalization and social media, says most if not all of the social media campaigns that the U.S. government tried in the past have failed. Weddady doubts the student projects will be effective in countering violent extremism.

“The problem is that the institutional fingerprint on these things kills its legitimacy from the get-go,” Weddady said.

That's why the government has actively avoided putting its fingerprint on these campaigns and discouraged students from using the State Department logo.

After the presentations at the State Department, the winners were announced: the Pakistani students at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Coming from a country where schools are often targeted, English major Mashal Imran admitted Team FATE may be a bit idealistic.

“I feel like we have to be when we are dealing with such a huge issue because if you're just pragmatic, you'll be like, ‘OK, maybe there's no point going ahead with it,’” Imran said after accepting her team’s award.

Countering violent extremism is a global effort. So when these students get home, they're planning to expand their campaign to other universities. Their $5,000 in prize money should help.

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