With the seemingly endless news of global and domestic extremism – whether about the 250 girls kidnapped in Nigeria, the 500 Britons reportedly waging jihad in Syria, or the worrying allegations made against several Birmingham schools – it is rare that a report devoted to countering extremism should fill us with positivity. However, research released last week by Quilliam about the state of online extremism should encourage us all, not least because of the very clear recommendations that it makes to the public, private and third sector.
We remain critical of sections of the government’s strategy that was proposed by the counter-extremism task force set up after the Woolwich attack, in particular the plans to implement negative measures to filter, censor or restrict access to extremist content. Indeed, some have suggested that the internet industry should be pressured to alter their algorithms altogether to achieve this. Our evidence-based policy advice provides recommendations on how to tackle the scourge of online extremism without the introduction of illiberal legislation that would clearly be inefficient, ineffective and counter-productive.
So how do we unleash a new wave of online activism to contest the ungoverned space of online extremism and break the monopoly that Islamist extremists in particular hold over certain socio-political issues?
Well, after accepting that illiberal legislation and policy is not the way to do it, the next step is the recognition of two clear facts: firstly, that offline behaviour is increasingly mirrored online, that this is also true for extremists and that it should also be true for counter-extremism. Secondly that, as we all use the internet, we are all responsible for self-regulating it and that the approach should not be solely a top-down one. In practical terms, this means that there needs to be stronger cooperation between public, private and third sectors.
In terms of pro-active steps that can be taken immediately, top of the list is the establishment of a central body to provide seed funding and training for grassroots online initiatives aiming to counter extremism. Online initiatives are invariably cheaper than offline ones, but are so often overlooked by local authorities doling out Prevent funds due to their perceived scope or lack of geographical focus. A central body to fund and train people doing such vital work would increase the potential impact of this sector and could provide small amounts of money to a wide range of people keen to challenge online extremism and provide essential counter-messaging. While some counter-extremism efforts should be delivered locally, online solutions must match the nature of the problem.
Of course, this should be coupled with further research into other forms of extremism. While this Quilliam report focuses on countering Islamist extremism in the UK and France alone, we need to extend the remit of this research to the global problem and to other forms of extremism emanating from the far-right and the far-left. All extremisms exploit similar anti-establishment grievances with varying narratives, and therefore the response must not be narrow in its definition of what extremism is or is not. Moreover, a mapping exercise to identify current online (or offline) counter-extremism efforts would be incredibly useful so as to boost the internet presence of civil society activists and support them in the vital work that they currently undertake.
The role of government in counter-extremism is, however, not simply to avoid doing anything that would negatively impact this sector. Rather, there are two active steps to be taken, beyond funding the initiatives detailed above: education and communication. Government has a clear role to improve digital literacy and critical consumption skills in schools and communities. Extremists have had the march on the rest of us for too long, and we have an opportunity to get back ahead and inoculate the next generation against extremism through our education system. In addition, the establishment of a social media outlet to clarify government policy and debunk extremist narratives is long overdue. The current failure to communicate with Britons in general, and Muslim communities in particular, makes it easy for extremist groups to spin narratives to exploit common grievances held by British Muslims. Worryingly, other British citizens increasingly sympathise with extremists due to shared grievances or shared perceptions of government policy.
A holistic approach to countering extremism must be taken. Through these recommendations, Quilliam hopes to reshape the current counter extremism paradigm in which the internet is seen as a problem because of the minority of extremists who exploit it; rather, it is a tool to fight back with progressive measures and positive counter-speech.
Quilliam presents the findings of the report Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How To Counter It at an event in Central London on 28 May at 6pm. To attend the event, please contact Erin Saltman by emailing [email protected]
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