FPI Bulletin: Countering Online Radicalization

June 24, 2016

By FPI Policy Intern Jeff Cimmino

President Obama reported last week that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was inspired by “extremist information that was disseminated over the Internet.” The internet has also served as a key source of inspiration for many of the 88 Americans already charged with supporting the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). While there is substantial knowledge of how ISIS employs social media as a means of radicalization and recruitment, there is precious little agreement as to the best methods for countering online radicalization.

How ISIS Recruiters Use Social Media

ISIS invests a substantial amount of time and effort to cultivate Western recruits via social media. J.M. Berger, a fellow with the George Washington University (GWU) Program on Extremism, has identified four stages of online recruitment: 1) First contact with a potential recruit; 2) Creation of a “micro-community” in which recruiters generate an echo chamber of radical ideas around the target; 3) A shift to private communications; and 4) Determination of which type of action the recruit should perform—some recruits become social media activists while others go on to commit attacks or seek to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A report from the New America Foundation found the average age of American recruits was 25, and “online activity was ubiquitous…with almost nine in 10 being active in online jihadist circles.”

Online radicalization is often complemented by in-person relationships. In their study “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes of the GWU Program on Extremism conclude that in most U.S. cases “online and offline dynamics complement one another” in the radicalization process. Often, individuals are exposed to radical sentiments by face-to-face interaction and the Internet serves to reinforce these newly discovered ideas.

As Berger notes, however, “the role of offline recruitment becomes more significant the closer one gets to an Islamic State-contested territory.” For example, one study of radicalization in the UK and France identified mosques, universities, prisons, and the media as “primary socialising agents” in the early stages of radicalization. The study concluded that “Individuals are likely to have been exposed to extremist narratives through one of these four socialising agents prior to searching out extremist content or explanations online.” However, such institutions do not serve as hotbeds of radicalization in the United States to the same degree as in Europe.

How to Counter Violent Extremists Online

There are several different approaches toward countering online radicalization. Broadly stated, one approach stresses directly countering extremist narratives, for example, by engaging in confrontations on social media. In contrast, others favor promoting positive alternative narratives for those vulnerable to extremist propaganda. A third approach takes a long-term view toward fostering digital literacy and critical thinking among youth. Each approach has its merits, but it remains unclear whether any single approach, or even a combination of all three, will be sufficient to guide a comprehensive online counter-radicalization strategy.

Both counter-messaging and the promotion of positive alternative viewpoints can play complementary roles in countering online radicalization. While counter-narratives are meant to respond directly to extremist content and are thus reactive, positive alternatives can offer a different path for those susceptible to extremist ideology.

In explaining the value of counter-messaging, Alberto Fernandez of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) argues the US needs a “troll army” of private citizens, perhaps with government support, to create an anti-extremist echo chamber. Counter-messages should be tailored to specific target audiences, using “a religiously-grounded approach when appropriate, sarcasm, humor, distraction, and music.” To increase the legitimacy of counter-messages, disillusioned American recruits and former jihadists should be featured prominently. President Obama expressed this sentiment last year, saying, “We also need to lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.” Counter-messages can be packaged in social media campaigns that include Twitter hashtags, You Tube videos, and more.

An important activity related to counter-messaging is the disruption of extremists’ ongoing exploitation of popular social media platforms. Among social media companies, Facebook has been at the forefront of such efforts. Initially, technology firms resisted President Obama’s request to participate in counter-radicalization efforts. Yet recently, Monika Bickert, head of Global Policy Management at Facebook, recently described how her firm is countering extremism by removing users discovered to be supporting terrorism, maintaining staff trained “in analyzing terrorism support,” and collaborating with Demos, a British think tank, in order to develop effective counter-messaging campaigns. Facebook is also working with the State Department and EdVenture to run “Peer 2 Peer.” This program brings together college students from around the world who compete to craft campaigns against violent extremism. Steven Stalinsky, Executive Director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), writes that Facebook “has shown that it is possible to defeat jihadis online, and the technology community can learn from its success.” Although Stalinsky sharply criticized Twitter’s deficient counter-extremism efforts, he has recently expressed his belief that the company is now moving in the right direction.

Counter-messaging and disruption campaigns may  subvert extremist narratives most effectively when complemented by positive alternatives to the extremists’ violent and distorted view of Islam. The Obama administration recently formed the Center for Global Engagement, housed in the State Department, whose purpose is to “more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups.” The center intends to help credible, moderate voices within the Muslim community spread their message and will use data-driven techniques to target those susceptible to radicalization. It is led by Michael Lumpkin, formerly the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. It is too early to tell whether or not the new Center will succeed; however, if it receives adequate funding and fulfills its mission effectively, it could serve as the central hub of online anti-extremism efforts.

In addition to cooperation across the government, cooperation between the government and external partners is equally important. The Quilliam Foundation, a British think tank founded by former Islamists, has suggested establishing a forum through which the government and its partners—including religious leaders, technology firms, and NGOs—can plan together how to counter extremism online. Similarly, President Obama pledged to establish, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, “a new digital communications hub to work with religious and civil society and community leaders to counter terrorist propaganda.” While government-approved counter-messages may have less legitimacy in the eyes of individuals vulnerable to radicalization, the government can provide funding and guidelines to partners who are developing counter-messages and positive narratives.

The third approach to countering online radicalization is to ensure that the next generation of Americans is digitally literate and armed with critical thinking skills. In a brief entitled “The Fight Against Online Radicalisation Starts Offline,” Tobias Gemmerli of the Danish Institute for International Studies calls for an approach that “attempts to prevent future extremism by building a strong democratic society of digital citizens.” This includes the development of curricula on how to critically interpret what they read online. A 2009 report focused on radicalization in England suggests “a systematic review should be conducted to determine” how parents, schools, and other groups “can contribute to strengthening media literacy as a means of countering online radicalisation.” While the American education system is decentralized, the federal government, could work with civil society and private sector partners to outline model curricula that communities may choose to follow. In addition, competitive grants could be offered to states or school districts that make digital literacy programs an integral part of their curriculum.

After Orlando

The massacre in Orlando demonstrated the severity of the threat that online radicalization presents to U.S. national security. The establishment of the Global Engagement Center and Facebook’s aggressive approach towards online extremism are promising signs that the US has begun taking the online war against ISIS more seriously. Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether even the most vigorous efforts can disrupt the Islamic State’s online recruitment. The group has demonstrated considerable adaptability in the social media space and may innovate more rapidly than Western governments and their partners. All that is clear after Orlando is the that U.S. has no choice but to fight aggressively against online radicalization, since the costs of inaction are too high.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More