Defusing the social media timebomb

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

Modern terrorists have embraced social media and “weaponised the internet” to achieve their goals, Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) last week.

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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