Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Recommended Reading: Combating Extremists Online

The U.K. based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) has released a paper on "Countering Online Radicalisation: A Strategy for Action".

This extensive report looks at a wide range of extremist-generated content on the Internet - from traditional terrorist organizations to white supremacist groups.

The paper begins with a look at why and how radical groups use the Internet. The power of the Internet (for all of society) is:
  1. Low cost of communication;

  2. Unlimited access knowledge;

  3. Create networks irrespective of boarders; and,

  4. Enables ‘risky’ or ‘embarrassing’ behavior.
However, extremist groups take this to, well, an extreme level:
  • "The internet can be used by extremists to illustrate and reinforce ideological messages and/or narratives. Through the internet, potential recruits can gain near-instantaneous access to visually powerful video and imagery which appear to substantiate the extremists’ political claims.

  • "The internet makes it easier to join and integrate into more formal organisations. It provides a comparatively risk-free way for potential recruits to find like-minded individuals and network amongst them, enabling them to reach beyond an isolated core group of conspirators.

  • "It creates a new social environment in which otherwise unacceptable views and behaviour are normalised. Surrounded by other radicals, the internet becomes a virtual ‘echo chamber’ in which the most extreme ideas and suggestions receive the most encouragement and support.
"It seems obvious, then, that the internet can have a role in intensifying and accelerating radicalisation. In fact, one may argue that the internet is of particular benefit to marginal and/or illegal groups and movements, because it facilitates the formation of (virtual) communities which would be more ‘risky’, if not impossible, to establish in the real world. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the internet is problematic, but is it the problem?"
The researchers propose four measures to combat online radicalization:
  • "Deterring producers - The selective use of takedowns in conjunction with prosecutions would signal that individuals engaged in online extremism are not beyond the law.

  • "Empowering online communities - The creation of an Internet Users Panel in order to strengthen reporting mechanisms and complaints procedures would allow users to make their voices heard.

  • "Reducing the appeal - More attention must be paid to media literacy, and a comprehensive approach in this area is badly needed.

  • "Promoting positive messages - The establishment of an independent start-up fund would provide seed money for grassroots online projects aimed at countering extremism."
The report looks at the pros, cons, tools and methods related to each of these areas. Of particular note, the paper rejects the all-to-common, knee-jerk reaction to just ban offensive material:
"Traditionally, most governments have focused on identifying technical solutions, believing that if somehow radicalising material can be removed from the web or made unavailable for viewing, the problem will go away. Yet, as this report has shown, any strategy that relies on reducing the availability of content alone is bound to be crude, expensive and counterproductive.

"The comparison with efforts to counter child sexual abuse on the internet is flawed, because much of the material involved in child sexual abuse is clearly illegal and there are no political constituencies which might be offended if repressive action is taken against it. Child sexual abuse is not a free speech issue, whereas radical political propaganda is.

"Any strategy hoping to counter online radicalisation must aim to create an environment in which the production and consumption of such materials become not just more difficult in a technical sense but unacceptable as well as less desirable."
The solutions offered are correct. The problem is, they are not easy answers and whether we are looking at protecting personal information in a commercial organization or combating extremists, most institutions only want easy answers.

Countering Online Radicalisation A Strategy for Action

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