Written Evidence to the Home Affairs Committee – Counter Extremism Inquiry

Written evidence submitted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Published 2 February 2016. Original document can be found via the UK Parliament Website here

The following written evidence is submitted to the Home Affairs Committee adding to the Countering Extremism Inquiry. As such, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) would like to use its research and experience working to counter violent extremism to highlight evidence and findings relevant to this inquiry. In particular, ISD would like to touch upon the topic of preventing violent extremism (section 2), inter-sector relations in CVE (section 3), and the need for credible, targeted counter-narratives (section 4).

1. Institute for Strategic Dialogue

1.1. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is an independent ‘think and do tank’ working with leaders in government, business, civil society and academia to develop cross-border responses to the major geo-strategic, social and security challenges of our time.[i]

1.2. Combining research and policy advisory work, with innovative delivery programmes, specialised task forces, cross-sector partnerships and networks, ISD works to counter global extremism, bridge inter-communal divides, and enhance Europe’s capacity to act effectively in the global arena.

2. Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE)

2.1. The recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act places a legal duty on schools to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.[ii] This new duty requires that teachers report signs of radicalisation to Senior Management and potentially the Government’s Channel programme. However, research has shown that identifying signs of radicalisation towards violence has no fixed profile or definitive signs. Individuals from all different backgrounds, faiths, age groups and social strata have been victim to processes of radicalisation, many with few obvious indicators in advance.[iii] This has led to the identification and referral of ‘false positives’, such as in a case last year in which a 14 year old student was questioned about the Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) after he mentioned the word “ecoterrorist” in a classroom discussion about environmental activism.[iv] ‘False positives’ such as these could have a detrimental impact on the young person referred.

2.2. Training and resources for teachers are vital to ensure that this type of classroom work is effective and measureable. In particular, ISD believes that teachers need to have the training and confidence to engage in difficult conversations with students on these subjects and not react with knee jerk referrals. Launched across Canada in February 2015, ISD’s Extreme Dialogue educational project aims to reduce the appeal of extremism among young people through open debate and exercises that develop critical thinking. To do this, Extreme Dialogue includes a series of short documentary films that feature hard-hitting and highly emotional personal stories of Canadians profoundly affected by violent extremism, including a former neo-Nazi extremist. The films are accompanied by a set of educational resources for teachers and educators in classrooms or community settings. Moreover, the project is designed to minimise the need for expert delivery or extensive training for teachers, thus allowing it to be scaled more effectively. The Extreme Dialogue films and resources can be downloaded at http://www.extremedialogue.org. Extreme Dialogue will be launching in the UK, Germany and Hungary later this year.

2.3. In PVE and CVE it is critical that sectors work together to create spaces where open dialogue can take place, particularly for younger citizens who are questioning and engaging with the world around them. Classrooms need to provide a safe space for students to ask questions and build a greater understanding of a diverse range of topics, including difficult and controversial topics like violent extremism. Government should continue to support the development and trialling of programmes like Extreme Dialogue in schools in line with the new statutory duty.

3. The Need for Inter-Sector CVE Relations

3.1. Today’s hate-based extremist movements have utilised all the modern tools available to them. From the attacks in Boston, Paris, and Copenhagen to the unprecedented droves of young Western men and women migrating to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria, we are reminded on a daily basis of the increasingly sophisticated ways in which terrorists utilise contemporary communications methods and the Internet to facilitate processes of radicalisation, recruitment, and organise attacks.

3.2. Extremist propaganda often has high-production quality audio-visual material, coupled with the amplification effect of sophisticated and targeted social media marketing strategies. The interactive aspect of social media networking allows users to find like-minded people who reinforce their views, creating echo chambers that can speed up the radicalisation process.

3.3. Tackling this requires strong partnerships between government, civil society and the private sector. This is at the heart of ISD’s approach to preventing and countering violent radicalisation.

To date, governments have largely relied on online take-downs of content and subsequent pressure on social media companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter to do likewise in an effort to quell extremist voices online. While social media companies have improved enforcement of their own terms of service, the extraordinary volume of extremist content online makes this approach only partially effective. Accounts and material reappear almost instantaneously. This cat and mouse phenomenon is potentially counterproductive since we have seen that as larger platforms work harder to take flagged extremist content down, there is a dangerous migration of online extremist users to smaller, less regulated platforms and more encrypted messaging sites.[v] This has also made the surveillance and monitoring of extremist networks online, which is needed for research and intelligence gathering, more difficult.

3.4. A potentially more effective approach to tackling online propaganda relies in promoting the creation of counter-messaging, delivered through innovative partnerships between government, private sector and civil society. While many governments are active in direct counter-messaging, governments are not seen as credible messengers to the most important target audiences in terms of either prevention or deradicalisation. Governments, however, can be highly effective in supporting counter messaging efforts from behind-the-scenes. Governments can also play a powerful ‘convening’ role, facilitating helpful networking among civil society and private sector. Governments can also remove the legal barriers that currently make many former violent extremists reticent to speak out.[vi]

3.5. The private sector also has a powerful role to play. This is particularly true for social media platforms and internet companies, but also advertising and creative production companies. Despite the impossibilities of creating automatic take-down systems around ‘extremist’ and even ‘terrorist’ content,[vii] these industries can provide resources and know-how to civil society to enhance their ability to produce counter messaging. Many companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, have taken their own initiative to increase their activities in this space.

3.6. Finally, civil society networks and organisations, particularly those that can work with former extremists, defectors, and affected communities, are best-placed to find creative ways to address the challenge of extremist recruitment. ISD has organised networks of civil society ‘credible voices’ to design counter-messaging interventions through its Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network of former extremists and its Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) of young civil activists. Through ‘innovation labs’ held in locations such as Amsterdam, Jakarta, Madrid, Rwanda and Nairobi, ISD has brought regional networks such as these together with the private sector and other talented individuals to help produce counter-messaging at scale.

3.7. This inter-sector CVE effort has been best exemplified by ISD’s partnership with Facebook to launch the Online Civil Courage Initiative (OCCI) in Berlin on 18 January 2015. The €1 million project is funded by Facebook and supported by the German government in an effort to provide a Europe-wide initiative for countering hate speech and extremism online.[viii]

4. Counter-Narratives

4.1. Currently, the most effective messengers and counter-extremist campaigners struggle to get their voices heard. Their efforts tend to be small scale, unconnected, un-strategic and un-sustained. They don’t have the production skills to prepare the kinds of high quality videos that ISIS is producing. They lack the communication and marketing skills to reach their target audiences and they do not have the expertise to make full use of all social media has to offer. Finally, no one knows for sure how well they work because the campaigns are not monitored and evaluated in a systematic way.

4.2. An effective counter messaging strategy requires credible voices to address these shortcomings and scale up efforts. By credible voices, we mean people and organisations that have influence over the audiences that extremists attempt to recruit from. Enlisting a wide variety of credible voices in the production of counter messaging requires trust, independence, objectivity, and inspiration. By leveraging our technical, communications, and innovation resources with these credible voices, we can begin to compete seriously with and disrupt the extremist propaganda machinery.

4.3. Counter narratives are a tool to challenge the ideologies, narratives and stories of violent extremists. Their purpose is to produce content or engagement that aims to discredit, deconstruct and/or demystify extremist messages. This can be done in a range of different approaches; by logical or factual arguments, satire or humour. Counter narratives have no fixed parameter. Their form can be social activism, working directly with communities or target audiences on these issues, or cultural activism, through art, theatre or music. The messaging can be as direct or indirect as needed. But whatever form counter narratives take, the principle is the same. We are challenging an extremist message with the specific goal to disrupt and undermine their ability to recruit and mobilise.

4.4. Whether they are called counter-narratives, counter speech, alternative narratives or counter-campaigns, we know that targeted messages on strategic platforms using credible voices can have an impact. We see, for example, political parties and corporations micro-targeting constituents or consumers through Internet and social media profiling. This technology can also be applied to directly target individuals that are being seduced by extremist propaganda as well as to measure and assess engagement with such material. ISD has pioneered the use of such techniques in the CVE domain through extensive research and pilot programmes tested on and offline.

4.5. ISD has recently conducted three pilot programmes across the radicalisation spectrum with promising results. In the ‘upstream’ (not yet influenced by extremists) education space, ISD’s Extreme Dialogue has been warmly received by teachers in Canada, which has provided training to over 400 teachers, youth workers and practitioners. Interest in our upcoming UK version is strong. Online, ISD conducted a six-month pilot helping target and evaluate an animated counter messaging campaign with support from Google Ideas. The anti-Islamist extremist campaign successfully targeted 50,000 at risk British youth through search and profile criteria and elicited a 5,000 word rebuttal from ISIS. Finally, an intervention study for those further ‘downstream’ (those more influenced by extremists) connected those displaying extremist sympathies on Facebook with former extremists who conversed with them one on one. Nearly 60% of those reached out to engaged with intervention providers or showed signs of changing their behaviour after the interaction.[ix] These pilots demonstrate just a few innovative and effective approaches that can benefit from more research and support.

5. Conclusion

5.1. Governments are crucial partners in national and localised efforts to strategically and effectively counter violent extremism. The UK government in particular, with its longstanding experience in the field of PVE and CVE, is at a critical juncture for having a large impact on its society in facilitating CVE efforts. We recommend that the government develop a sustainable infrastructure for communications with relevant private sector bodies to coordinate knowledge and understanding around CVE concerns. With this we also recommend creating better infrastructure for supporting independent and credible civil society-led PVE and CVE efforts, from smaller grant based local projects to larger nationwide campaigns, without having to brand these efforts with government logos or figureheads.

5.2. The government will need well-working partnerships with strategic private and civil society sector individuals and organisations. Relevant private sector organisations, particularly affected by online extremist and terrorist-related content, are best placed to assist in developing CVE initiatives, in particular in assisting with the scaling up and amplification of counter-narrative content. Civil society should be incentivised by government and private sector to engage in this space in a variety of ways that can be tailored to individual and group needs and comfort levels. From upstream to downstream, processes of radicalisation can be challenged effectively by bringing the best skills of each sector to the forefront of action.

For further information from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue please contact info@strategicdialogue.org.



[i] For more on the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and its projects please visit: < http://www.strategicdialogue.org/>.

[ii] Countering-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, (c.6). United Kingdom. < http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/contents/enacted>.

[iii] See: Saltman, E. and Smith, M. Till Martyrdom do us Part: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon. < http://www.strategicdialogue.org/Till_Martyrdom_Do_Us_Part_Gender_and_the_ISIS_Phenomenon.pdf>.

[iv] UK Islamic extremism: 400 under-10s referred to government’s deradicalisation programme, International Business Times <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/more-400-under-10s-referred-governments-deradicalisation-programme-1539220&gt;

[v] See: Hussain, G. and Saltman, E. Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter It. May 2014. < http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jihad-trending-quilliam-report.pdf>.

[vi] See: Amanullah, Z. Countering Violent Extremism: Understandin the Role of Former Extremists and Counter Messaging. <http://www.strategicdialogue.org/Formers_brochure_-_small.pdf>.

[vii] Media and some governments have compared extremist and terrorist content to Child Sexual Abuse Imagery. However, because the majority of extremist and terrorist related content is nuanced and ideology-driven, it is impossible to create algorithms or automatic take-down systems that would not filter out a majority of analogous content. We have also seen language and online usage shift to avoid detection while towing the line of legality.

[viii] See the OCCI Facebook Page for reference: < https://www.facebook.com/onlinecivilcourage>.

[ix] For the full report on the One2One pilot project see: Frennett, R. and Dow, M. One to One Interventions: A Pilot CVE Methodology. <http://www.strategicdialogue.org/includes/One2One_Web_v2.pdf>.

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