Budget 2015: countering online extremism
15 May 2015|

ISIL is having considerable success in employing public social media platforms for recruitment and propaganda.

ISIL is having considerable success in employing public social media platforms for recruitment and propaganda. In Australian cases like Jake Bilardi and Mehmet Biber, we’ve seen the social media component playing a role in the radicalisation and recruitment process.

We’re also seeing a lot of engagement by Australian foreign fighters and Islamist extremists online in terms of posting their own content: such as Facebook posts, YouTube clips, Tweets and photos.

There’s been some success in disrupting a small amount of the extremist propaganda on YouTube and Facebook. Twitter is trying (through user reports) to crack down on this engagement.

It was therefore pleasing to note that our Attorney-General’s department recently met with these companies to discuss cooperation to restrict extremist material.

But it’s really a case of ‘whack-a-mole’ when it comes to trying to stop extremist online propaganda; we’re not going to censor our way out of the problem.

So it’s good news that this week’s federal budget provided $22m to combat terrorist propaganda and counter violent extremism.

The government’s stated objective is ‘to challenge terrorist organisations’’ lies and propaganda online. This will make it harder for terrorist groups to attract vulnerable Australians, particularly young Australians, through the internet and social media.’

It’s not yet clear who’s going to produce the high volumes of online counter propaganda on social media that’s required to make a difference here. But there’ll be a need for some government risk taking, with community groups and others having to produce the necessary counter messages at a fast rate. In this context, American counterterrorism expert Peter Bergen recently noted that satire can be a powerful weapon to deflate ISIL’s claims to be the vanguard of the new caliphate.

I agree with the findings of Roslyn Richardson in an ASPI study on this problem. After she spoke with young Muslims in Sydney about Australia’s online efforts in countering violent extremism she concluded that it’s best to support local initiatives with small grants:

‘Where possible, government agencies should support existing popular community-driven anti‑violence online campaigns rather than prioritising the development of new websites to counter violent narratives…. Government agencies should directly engage with the young people involved in popular initiatives and investigate ways to support them and their campaigns where possible.’

Roslyn did, however, caution that with government support there’s a real risk that this may undermine the credibility of the message. She reported that many of the young Muslims she spoke with ‘simply weren’t interested in visiting government websites on a regular basis’.

They appeared to be especially reluctant to visit websites countering violent extremists when they’re government-badged. Richardson found that these sites ‘hold little appeal among young Muslim audiences and should be aimed at other target groups instead, including community leaders’.

I’m not so sure about this last point: just because it’s an Australian government ‘messenger’ doesn’t automatically mean the message will be discounted. It would, I suspect, more often than not depend on whether the message itself resonates with the target audience.

But there’s no doubt that governments—both federal and state—will need to work harder at shaping the messages they deliver to ensure they’re credible.

Even if the messages are credible, however, it’s still going to take time to see what might or mightn’t work in countering online extremism in Australia.