Carl Packman looks at a new report into online extremism by think tank Quilliam.
Government can often be divided into two types: one that perceives a problem and acts upon it, and one that perceives a problem and dithers instead. A new report out today by the Quilliam Foundation essentially accuses the UK government of the latter when it comes to taking action against online extremism.
Looking at both the UK and France for the online meanderings of Jihadis using social media tools such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the counter-extremist methodology, particularly countering extremism via online platforms, has been criticized for being outdated and somewhat ineffective.
The report looks at 30 Islamist groups online, focusing not only on social media, but on chat rooms, discussion forums and static websites to look at the extent to which extremism is fuelled by the internet.
Two narratives emerge right away: firstly, censorship isn’t working and the means by which counter-extremism efforts identify extremism online has to become much smarter.
Back in late 2013, David Cameron announced the creation of a Taskforce set up with the intention of tackling extremism whereever it forms. Given the sudden interest in online forums, the Taskforce focused squarely on what can be done to counter its development.
One of the proposals of the Taskforce was to consider whether “there is a case for new types of order to ban groups which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech, when necessary to protect the public or prevent crime and disorder”.
Furthermore, the government wanted to work with internet companies to “restrict access to terrorist material online which is hosted overseas but illegal under UK law and help them with their continuing efforts to identify what material to include in family-friendly filters”.
The Quilliam report criticises this approach.
For a start, the researchers found that the internet is really just an easy platform to share information on extremism and jihad-related material. Offline socialization is where the extremist indoctrination really takes place as a rule, rather than on the web.
The report also points out that censorship, the go-to means of filtering out extremism by governments, has not only been found to be ineffective but counter-productive. What needs developing is a proper counter-extremism strategy; though as the report today says, there are too few initiatives with such a focus.
So that takes us to the second narrative of the report, namely that the government response to extremism online has to be smarter.
Historically extremist groups have always felt themselves to be one step in front of government agencies. As was pointed out in The Economist early in 2013, groups such as Fursan al-Balagh Media and Al Qadisiyah Media translate jihadi propaganda so that organisations such as the Global Islamic Media Front can act as a distributer.
Given that translation is so varied, spanning Albanian, Bosnian, Filipino, French, German, Italian, Pushtu, Spanish, Urdu and Uighur, groups have in the past believed that they could remain out of the spotlight by English-only intelligence agencies.
The Quilliam report, however, offers insights for the government that go further than just language gaps – a relatively easy barrier to cross. The report recommends, for example, that the government supports a social media outlet that clarifies its policies regarding online extremism (though, having seen the Taskforce commitments above, what is needed is not only clarity, but a change in direction).
Establishing a central body offering funding and training for grassroots online counter-extremism initiatives would also go a long way – for the government to be more open in where it gets its ideas from on tackling extremism is no bad thing at all.
The recommendations of the report seem to be more operational than philosophical. But that is not a bad thing in itself. As the report says, censorship seems to be the only tool in the government’s box, which is poor use of statecraft. What is needed is a way of harnessing grassroots ideas – such as Quilliam’s own.
We have been going in the wrong direction on what to do with online Islamic extremism. This report today offers the a reverse button. It may not offer all the answers, but it does provide assistance in the way of doing things and the motives for doing them. That’s progress.
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