Online extremism and radicalisation

Online extremism is an issue that has received a great deal of attention in recent months. Especially after the terrorist attacks in November 2015 in Paris, the subsequent Brussels lockdown due to high-level terrorist alert and the attacks in March 2016, the fear that young people can be groomed online in Europe by violent extremists and terrorists and encouraged to leave their home countries in order to join IS (Islamic State) in Iraq or Syria has grown, along with another fear that, through immersion in violent extremist cyberspaces, vulnerable young people can also be radicalised to carry out attacks in their home countries.

Regarding the question of exactly what online extremism is and how can it be defined, there are a huge number of definitions of terrorism available as this is a highly contested term. One well-known definition is that contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, which states that terrorism is:
"…premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
 
Violent jihadism is an ideology that aims to reorder government or society through the implementation by violence and oftentimes terrorism of Islamic or Sharia law.
 
Violent radicalisation (including online) is a process whereby individuals, through their online interactions and exposure to various types of internet content, come to view violence as a legitimate method of solving social and political conflicts. Some of those violently radicalised via the internet may go on to commit acts of terrorism. 
 
Why do we need to be concerned?
  • Young people appear to be being influenced by digital content that they consume and by online interactions to the point where some have decided to leave their countries of origin to travel to Syria and Iraq in order to join Islamic State (IS).

  • Around 30,000 people have left countries (that are NOT Syria and Iraq) in order to join IS. At least 6,000 of these have left European countries.

  • Policy makers are placing a great emphasis on the role that the internet is playing in the recruitment of younger people to IS. There is a concern that some of those who join IS will return to the EU and carry out attacks on behalf of IS here. 
  • The message given by IS to its adherents is that if you are unable to travel to Syria and Iraq, then it is your duty carry out attacks in your home country.

  • Many of those influenced by IS are young; indeed many are teens. Footage has emerged showing young people carrying out executions and torture at the behest of IS.
There is clearly a need to work closely with industry to prevent social media from being used to promote violent extremism. Different governments are working to tackle the complex problem of restricting access to terrorist material online which may be hosted in one country but is illegal under national law. Another important strategy is to have clear reporting routes so that members of the public are able to flag and report extremist content online, while technical solutions could prove useful in preventing access to such content. However, given that much of this type of content is user-generated, finding it and removing it can be a challenge.
 
As in other aspects of online safety, the internet has not created a problem but it has exacerbated it by making it much easier for very large numbers of people to easily access violent extremist content and therefore to be potentially influenced by what they see, read or hear. A quote from the Anti-Defamation League notes that: "Face-to-face interaction with terrorist operatives is no longer a requirement for radicalisation. Individual extremists, or lone wolves, are increasingly self-radicalising online with no physical interactions with established terrorist groups or cells, a development that can make it more difficult for law enforcement to detect plots in their earliest stages."
 
Much of the preventative work focuses on providing a counter-narrative as, very often, extremist views can go unchallenged in chat rooms and other online forums. It has been suggested, however, that some attempts to do this (by governments) have been unsuccessful.
 
The Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs) have been proactive in trying to respond to this issue finding messages to provide to young people in order to ensure they have the resilience to deal with violent extremist and terrorist content they may access online.
 
At the Insafe Training meeting in May 2015, Dr Maura Conway, Senior Lecturer in International Security, Coordinator of VOX-Pol (voxpol.eu) and expert in terrorism and the internet, explained that it is important to distinguish between extremism, violent extremism, and terrorism. Of course, people are entitled to extreme views on any topic which may differ from our own, but violent extremists are declaring that they believe that the only way to resolve problems is to kill or harm others who disagree with them. Violent extremism and terrorism overlap but they are not the same. 
 
Moreover in December 2015, also at an Insafe Training Meeting, SICs specifically tackled online radicalisation and extremism noting that that it is important to not only focus on ISIL/ISIS (Islamic State) but also to be aware of content and activity from the far right and consider how this is tackled from an educational perspective. 
 
From terrorist threat to far-right extremism, online hate speech became a key focus area for SICs. Therefore, at national level, various SICs have been developing activities and resources that can reach a broader audience starting from children to teachers or parents, and promote a correct understanding of the online radicalisation and extremism issues while seeking concrete actions.
 
Austria: Online radicalisation as a new challenge for safer internet trainings
At present, all educators, trainers or other people who work with children and digital technologies face the same situation. Digital media's ever-evolving challenges – such as users' fast changing online behaviour as well as a constant flow of new tools, new internet technologies and new ways of online communication – raise new questions and demand new solutions. Therefore, it is essential for people engaged in safer internet trainings to stay up to date and constantly gain expertise in new topics. Online radicalisation and online jihadism are among the most challenging topics from recent months.
 
A fairly large group of people from Austria – in relation to the total population – have travelled to Syria to become foreign fighters. This development has not only unnerved citizens, but has also raised many questions, especially among teachers and young people. Saferinternet.at trainers are often confronted with questions regarding the situation, such as:
  • Why are young people interested in jihadism and willing to join this new movement?
  • How does online recruitment work?
  • How should one (as a friend or teacher) react if they see a young person rapidly moving in this particular direction? 
  • How to deal with young people who have come back from Syria?
Not only do we need to answer those questions, we also have to accept our personal limitations. Moreover, we need to map out a strategy to handle online radicalisation in a competent way. These are the key elements of the strategy of the Austrian Safer Internet Awareness Centre:
 
We inform ourselves
In order to find answers and stay up to date, Saferinternet.at trainers participate in expert trainings or inform themselves using online materials. One of these special trainings took place in March 2015 as a joint training session together with the Austrian Helpline team, 147 Rat auf Draht. The workshop was conducted by the Austrian hotline for online radicalisation (funded by the Austrian Ministry of Family Affairs). Some of the trainers also attended various training sessions organised at regional level within regional youth work networks. However, there is still a need for further training activities, as many questions remain unanswered, such as how to deal with returning foreign fighters.
 
We work with partners and networks
New networks and new partnerships are constantly being established at regional level throughout the whole country. There are two reasons for Saferinternet.at trainers to actively participate in those networks:
  1. Many professionals in the field lack the experience on how young people use the internet for communication and how online radicalisation can be found on a daily basis. Being internet experts, we can contribute to those questions by explaining the digital world of young people to others.
  2. Working with network partners allows us to pass on specific questions raised in Saferinternet.at trainings to experts. We are neither experts on the Muslim world, nor do we have expertise on second or third generation migrants in Austria and their experiences with society. We refer questions regarding these topics to partners from specialised organisations or the police.
We know our strengths and limitations
Our experience from prevention work has shown that it is essential to broach the issue of online radicalisation at an early age. This can be achieved most effectively by teaching children information literacy. We train teachers on how to work with their students on the following topics:
  • How to assess/verify information provided by an online source?
  • How to trust online experts?
  • How to find reliable online sources?
Over the course of the last year, we have also added materials on this topic to our products and services. 
 
Despite all our efforts, we do not consider ourselves experts on Islam. We will still not be able to provide answers to all the questions raised in Saferinternet.at trainings. Therefore, we have to know our limitations, but still cater to our audience's need by referring them to expert partners.
 
We have to develop strategies on how to include our networks partners and establish a system of passing on training requests. The outlined strategies will help us to master present challenges and may also help to meet future ones.
 
Belgium: How to explain to children tragic events due to extremism and radicalisation
After the attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016, the Belgian Safer Internet Centre – Child Focus – shared a set of guidelines on how to explain such sensitive topics to children.
 
Children may be exposed to this traumatic information from regular audiovisual media services – television or radio – or online publications and news. For parents, explaining such events to their children may seem difficult, especially when they are dealing with their own fears. In their guidelines, Child Focus provide 10 pertinent suggestions on how to reach out to children without frightening them: they also have the right to be informed, however their age must be always taken into account when tackling these matters. 
 
Bulgaria: No Hate Speech Movement 2016 – 2017 
In January 2016, the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre joined the No Hate Speech Movement and became a member of the Coordination Committee, to prevent and counteract hate speech among the young people in Bulgaria.
 
All participating institutions and organisations actively discussed and voted the framework agreement for establishment of the National Coordination Committee. They also debated the funding possibilities (for example, the European Youth Foundation), as well as the volunteer initiatives and resources each organisation could contribute to the campaign. 
 
An Annual Work Plan of the National Coordination Committee was also adopted, hence regular meetings will take place every three months – the next one is planned for June 2016 in Sofia. Joint events and initiatives were also planned on the occasion of the Action Day on Combatting Sexist Hate Speech – 8 March 2016. More information is available on the BIK portal
 
Croatia: #lijepariječ for Safer Internet Day 2016
in Croatian, Lijepariječ means ‘nice word' and was used by the Croatian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) for their campaign against online hate speech for Safer Internet Day (SID) 2016. Working together with YouTube in Croatia, the campaign was developed with 13 youth panellists pointing out some of the worst things they have written or received on social media.
 
The youngsters held up signs with the negative content, showing how this also had a negative impact on their mood while, when they flipped their cards and showcased positive messages, their overall mood changed and became more optimistic proving the importance of spreading and receiving positive messages. 
 
Czech Republic: Two more years for the No Hate Speech Movement
"Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…" sings Taylor Swift in her recent smash hit single. Maybe in her song, but in real life, thanks to the No Hate Speech Movement campaign (NHSM), there is a decent chance that actions of haters (at least in online world) will be on the decline. And we are using the future tense intentionally. Why? Because during the ‘Evaluation and Follow-up Conference' of the NHSM it was announced that this successful campaign is being extended for another two years.
 
All of the representatives of the national coordination committees and online activists gathered at the European Youth Centre at the end of May 2015 to evaluate the past two years of the campaign that reached countries all around Europe. It focused on spreading no-hate messages across the online world and on tackling xenophobic, racist and other hateful content that can be found on the internet. 
 
Since the Czech Safer Internet Centre is a national coordinator in the Czech Republic, it sent two participants to the conference also. Tereza Zadrazilova and Jan Huk shared their best practices in tackling hate speech online and gave their tips on how to improve the campaign in the future.
 
In addition to talking about the actual campaign, there were various presentations from representatives of many organisations and companies that deal with and fight hate speech online – from the Council of Europe, Facebook and Twitter to Norwegian Funds and many more.
 
All of the participants also received a certificate from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, for their participation during the campaign and were greeted by the Mayor of Brussels, Roland Ries.
 
France: School programmes on anti-radicalisation
Following the Paris terrorist attack in November 2015, the French Safer Internet Centre (SIC) has started working with ministries, experts and other NGOs to create a programme around anti-radicalisation.
 
Moreover, in France, the aim is to implement a programme to educate young people in schools about the risks of online radicalisation and preventing children and teenagers from joining terrorist organisation and travelling to regions controlled by terrorist organisations. Such concern was raised also after noting that providing a counter-narrative on social networks is not enough: online radicalisation is taking place on other forums such as YouTube and Dofus (video games).
 
For more information on the French government actions against radicalisation, both online and offline, see: 
Germany: Sensitising students for extremist online content
The German teaching brochure ‘The many faces of online right-wing extremism' aims to enable students to dismantle right-wing extremist content online and seeks to provide them with the knowledge of how to stand up against it. Created by klicksafe, partner in the German Safer Internet Centre (SIC), the brochure contains a wide information package for teachers, including seven concrete teaching modules for 45-minutes lessons using various methods. 
 
The modules touch upon the following topics:
  • Detect racism/discrimination and get to know what racism and discrimination means.
  • Get to know the features of right-wing extremism and recognise them in online content.
  • Recognise right-wing extremists in social networking sites.
  • Recognise right-wing extremism in social web content and train adequate reactions.
  • Recognise right-wing extremist messages in music clips and learn how to use reporting systems.
  • Classify right-wing extremist content legally.
  • Get to know various strategies of how to react to right-wing extremist actions/messages.
The brochure is tailored to the German context, but its methods could be adapted to other cultural contexts. The modules are appropriate for youths starting from 9th grade. 
 
Access the resource here.
 
Find out more about the No Hate Speech Movement here.
 
Greece: Online hate speech on far-right extremism and refugee issues
Mostly movements such as Golden Dawn, while adding to the current concern regarding refugees, mark online radicalisation in Greece. Having to deal with situations in which entire neighbourhoods become isolated as soon as refugees move in, it has become more and more common to encounter online extremism pointing towards segregation and hate speech against immigrants. 
 
In partnership with the Greece Foundation, responsible in Greece for the No Hate Speech Campaign, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Greek Safer Internet Centre (SIC) visited the Icelandic SIC in June 2015. Based on that study visit, the Greek SIC created an educational book with 90 lessons plans on hate speech, of which 600 hard copies were distributed in workshops taking place in Athens and Thessaloniki. 
 
For Safer Internet Day 2016, the Greek SIC launched an invitation to schools to submit poems under the theme of ‘Combating online hate speech' to create a digital anthology through which to foster the sense of responsibility to children, promote tolerance and acceptance, and scale up awareness for the basic democratic values that should govern the internet. 
 
Iceland: No Hate Speech Movement - Bookmarks
The Icelandic Safer Internet Centre (SIC) has been working together with their youth panellists in an exercise titled ‘Inspired by Bookmarks'. This exercise starts with an introduction of the No Hate Speech movement: projects, sponsors, sense of the scope of the project and broad definition of hate speech. Participants are usually aged between 14 and 16, although they can be younger as well. 
 
While conducting the exercise, most of the time is dedicated to offering an overview of the different aspects of online hate speech, with concrete examples. Finally, in order to raise awareness, the hashtag #giveahaterahug is also disseminated to be used by the participants.
 
Portugal: The No Hate Ninjas
In Portugal, the National Committee is responsible for tackling hate speech, therefore the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre (SIC) is confident that the campaign will grow. Current resources from Portugal that tackle online hate speech are those such as ‘The No Hate Ninjas' – a group of young people that produced a video explaining hate speech and why it is important to combat it. One of their outcomes has been "A story about cats, unicorns and hate speech". 
 
On a similar note, another resource was produced by young people entitled ‘How to survive to trolls'. It is a simple but interesting resources, using humour to help people to fight against hate speech. 
 
Russia: Avoiding racism and nationalist propaganda
The Russian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) is also working to help tackle online radicalisation by promoting hotline data and trends together with experts in order to try and raise awareness of the most common threats.
 
The main focus is on racism and nationalist propaganda, and special action is being taken in order to tackle radical Islam and hate speech manifested against other uncommon religious cults present in Russia. Moreover, extremist grooming is taking place where young people are being encouraged to join terrorist organisations.
 
The resources and information of the Russian SIC also tackle the rise in nationalist propaganda, focusing particularly on parents and young people aged between 14 and 24, as they are able to have a better understanding of the situation.
 
Sweden: Study on extremists' internet use
Back in 2013, the Swedish Media Council published the study ‘Pro-violence and anti-democratic messages on the internet'. The study examines how Swedish right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists and militant jihadists use the internet and social media for propaganda and recruiting purposes.
 
The study examines messages, aimed at young persons, that encourage violence for a political or ideological cause, communicated on open web sites, forums and commercial publishing solutions (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter). The study is concerned with the messages that are directed outwards, available to the general public, and that can be regarded as tools for recruitment and radicalisation. For this reason, only open communication environments have been mapped – websites and discussion forums that are open to the general public and social media that do not require any special invitation. The internal communication that takes place in closed environments (password-protected or only for invited members) is not included in the survey.
 
The most tangible difference between the three web environments was their difference in size: the Swedish right-wing extremist web environment is much greater in scale and more interactive than the left-wing and Islamist environments.
 
A few examples of the differences include:
  • The extreme right engages in alternative news dissemination, where events are passed through a racist/nationalist/national-socialist filter before it is presented to their audience. They use the internet and social media for recruiting with a high interactivity on forums and with comments. Their own media channels tell the truth, and all other media are lying to the people. 
  • The extreme/violent autonomous left don't use the internet as a tool for propaganda and recruiting. There is no interactivity in forums or with comments. Instead the autonomous left uses the internet and social media to mobilise for special manifestations. 
  • The militant jihadists in Sweden use the internet to focus on conflicts abroad, rather than to mobilise for activities in Sweden. During the studied period (September 2012–April 2013), their use of the internet as a tool for propaganda and recruiting was limited with a low degree of interactivity. 
 
The study also proposes measures to equip young people to resist such messages, where media- and information literacy is suggested as the best way: to provide youth with the means to unmask or expose false or biased information. The study is one of a total of 15 measures in the Swedish Government's Action Plan for Protecting Democracy against Pro-Violence Extremism.
 
Beyond the study
Since the completion of the study there is an increasing extremist social media use, especially among jihadists/Islamic State (IS). The propaganda looks the same, but is disseminated more efficiently through social media.
 
The Swedish government has appointed a national coordinator for improving cooperation between government agencies, local authorities and organisations at national, regional and local level in an effort to protect democracy against violent extremism. The Swedish Media Council takes part in a reference group, tied to the coordinator, for knowledge and information exchange.
 
‘MIL for me'
The study created a need for measures against violent extremism on the net. Instead of creating an ‘anti-extremist' campaign, the Swedish Media Council developed ‘MIL for me' – an educational material aimed at strengthening teenagers' source criticism and abilities to see through propaganda.
 
The tool is an online training resource on media and information literacy (MIL), also containing: lesson plans, fact sheets, and a structured methodology for working with MIL in schools and at libraries.
 
‘MIL for me' is interactive and adapted for four different target groups:
  • teachers and school-librarians.
  • students (aged 12-18).
  • librarians in public libraries.
  • pedagogues working with children with intellectual or cognitive disabilities (through an easy-to-read version).
In a qualitative evaluation of the material, we find that one key success factor in this resource is that, when implemented in schools, it brings together different professionals (teachers, other staff, administrative personnel, school librarians, and school leaders) in discussions concerning the media landscape, democracy, human rights and media- and information literacy in a positive, unifying, way.
 
Access the 'MIL for me' resource (in Swedish) here. In addition, Insafe has recently translated a module of this resource for both teachers and students into English – read more here
 
UK: Experience on how to protect children from online extremism
David Wright, Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre (SIC), recently wrote a piece for the Leader magazine (the magazine for education leaders of secondary schools and colleges, published by the Association of School and College Leaders in the UK). In it he explores the dangers to children's wellbeing posed by political extremists on social media and outlines the steps schools in the UK are now obliged to take to protect students from indoctrination online. Read the full article in the Leader magazine here.
 
Additionally, the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), partner in the UK SIC, has produced a new resource on ‘How to protect children from online extremism'. This online checklist looks at the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which obliges schools to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism including online. Access the SWGfL checklist here.
 
For Safer Internet Day (SID) 2016, the UK SIC campaign focused on online hate speech. To the SID 2016 theme ‘Play your part for a better internet', the UK SIC added the hashtag #shareaheart, focusing on young people's experiences of online empowerment and online hate. Schools across the UK used the UK Safer Internet Centre's Education Packs and Safer Internet Day TV films to explore these issues, and on Safer Internet Day itself, the UK SIC took a group of young people to Number 10 Downing Street before hosting an event at the BT Centre in London to hear young people's perspectives. 
 
In line with the activities from Safer Internet Centres as outlined above, in June 2015, the London Grid for Learning in the UK provided some videos that can be used by teachers to help to promote a counter-narrative. The videos also explain the narrative that is being presented to young people by IS and why this is having such an impact. Further information and resources are also available. Earlier in 2016, the UK government has also launched a website aiming to help tackle extremism in an educative manner. The website ‘educate against hate' aims to provide practical advice for parents, teachers and school leaders on protecting children from extremism and radicalisation, as mentioned in a BIK portal article published at the beginning of March. 
 
Further reading:
Other items of interest:

Note: This article was originally published in June 2015 as part of the second edition of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) bulletin. It has been updated in April 2016 with new content and resources to give a more comprehensive overview of Safer Internet Centre activity in this area at the current time.

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