That live feed of information is useful to Australians who have family in Syria and surrounding countries, but social media platforms are also recruitment and propaganda tools for extremist groups involved in the conflict, and their supporters overseas. So any campaign undertaken by authorities here to discourage Australians from fighting in Syria should include a strong online effort to counter extremist recruiters.
Last month the UK’s Quilliam Foundation published a report on online extremism. The study found that the vast majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being indoctrinated online. The report found that relying on censorship and filtering methods to counter online extremism was ineffective. It advocated developing counter-extremist efforts through online content and popularising online initiatives that fight against extremism. The report found that there weren’t enough materials that counter extremist content online, allowing extremists to dominate the conversation on many topics.
The report makes several useful recommendations that warrant study in Australia by those responsible for implementing countering violent extremism programs:
- establish a forum that deals with online extremism and brings stakeholders from key sectors together in order to do so
- improve digital literacy and critical consumption skills in schools and communities
- encourage the establishment of a social media outlet that clarifies government policies and debunks propaganda
- undertake a mapping exercise that explores current efforts to tackle extremism online and identifies partners that could be given support to develop an effective online presence
- establish a central body that offers seed funding and training for grassroots online counter‐extremism initiatives.
The last suggestion is particularly relevant to Australia. Quilliam suggests grants ranging between A$900 and A$3600 that would go ‘towards helping existing initiatives improve their online presence and further develop their social media outreach … [S]pecific online initiatives could include fully fledged websites, social media campaigns, a series of videos hosted on videosharing platforms such as YouTube, and forums that discuss pertinent topics related to extremism’.
Quilliam suggests the initiatives could be run by individuals, small community groups, student societies and other small- to medium-sized networks. Initiatives in Australia to counter online extremism should, as the Quilliam Foundation suggests, help grassroots initiatives that are already trying to tackle extremism to make better use of online tools.
But a word of warning: a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in the UK makes clear that in developing a counter-messaging campaign on the foreign fighter issue, many of the most credible messengers have poor online skills, so they aren’t able to use social media platforms. It found that many counter-messengers don’t have even the basic skills that would allow them to take and upload photos or create and share basic videos using smart phones.
The Australian government through its countering violent extremism program will have an important role to play here in building technical capacity with those individuals and groups best placed to deliver counter-narrative campaigns.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.