This executive summary is based on the Quilliam report <Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter it> by Ghaffar Hussain and Dr. Erin Marie Saltman. Published May 2014
Online extremism and the role the Internet plays in the radicalisation process is currently being debated and discussed by journalists, academics, technologists and government officials alike. This report demystifies the topic of extremist content online and exposes the manner in which online tools are being used by Islamist extremist organisations and individuals to recruit and propagandise. Current measures to tackle online extremism are also assessed and critiqued, after which the report details a practical strategy for countering extremism online and making the Internet a less hospitable domain for extremists.
The research conducted for this report focuses on 30 Islamist extremist groups operating in the UK and France, mapping their use of the Internet and what they hope to achieve through their online activities. Popular online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter as well as chat rooms, discussion forums and static websites are analysed with a view to assessing the role online extremist messaging plays in the radicalisation process. The report also addresses the issue of censorship, assessing the effectiveness of current filtering methods available and their overall efficacy. Research for this report was based on original data collection and analyses as well as interviews with a range of experts, mentors and target audiences.
Key findings in this report:
- With the Internet often being accused of producing radicalisation in isolation of other factors, this report found that the vast majority of radicalised individuals come into contact with extremist ideology through offline socialisation prior to being indoctrinated online. In other words, the Internet does not radicalise in isolation of other factors and should not be targeted as the ‘cause’ of radicalisation. As such, the Internet’s role is less about initiating the radicalisation process; rather it acts as a facilitator and catalyst for the radicalisation process by 1) indoctrinating, 2) educating and 3) socialising individuals.
- Although governments are increasingly relying on censorship and filtering methods to counter online extremism, this report found that negative measures, or censorship in general, was not only ineffective and costly but also potentially counter-productive.
- Positive measures, such as developing counter-extremist efforts through online counterspeech content and popularising online initiatives that fight against extremism are much more effective in challenging extremist ideologies. However, there are currently not enough materials that counter extremist content online, allowing extremists to monopolise certain issues.
- We found that results from search engines rarely, if ever, provide links to content that supported Islamist extremism. It was equally rare to find content countering extremist narratives.
- Research also found that available Islamist extremist content websites were most successful if they provided more subtle, non-illegal information platforms with links to active social media platforms for users. Available static websites served primarily to 1) propagate the Islamist narrative through specific interpretations of scriptures, 2) promote martyrdom and 3) solidify a ‘self versus other’ allegiance to Muslims, rejecting non-Muslims.
This report seeks to differentiate itself from previous reports on online extremism in two ways; firstly the research itself is much more in-depth and diverse, combining qualitative and quantitative data to reach conclusions. Secondly, this report offers a comprehensive and practical list of recommendations which, if implemented fully, could unleash a new wave of online activism that will take the fight to extremists online, breaking the current monopoly they hold over certain socio-political issues.
Recommendations to public, private and third party sectors based on our findings:
- Establishing a forum that deals with online extremism and brings stakeholders from key sectors together in order to do so.
- Improving digital literacy and critical consumption skills in schools and communities.
- Encouraging the establishment of a social media outlet that clarifies government policies and debunks propaganda.
- 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.
- Establishing a central body that offers seed funding and training for grassroots online counter-extremism initiatives.
- More research into how the far right is using the Internet to propagandise giving a broader view of ‘extremism online’.
The findings and recommendations of this report suggest a clearer understanding of the role the Internet plays in radicalisation process and an appreciation of the dangers of relying on illiberal censorship can contribute towards the development of a more holistic approach to tackling extremism online. Relying on the cultivation of grassroots initiatives to develop and promote counterspeech online, as opposed to censorship, could help turn the tide against current extremist efforts. However, co-operation and regular communication between stakeholders from key sectors is vital in order for the above vision to be realised and, thus, the establishment of a forum that allows this to take place is also important.