Reports Highlight Efforts to Counter On-line Extremism

I’m a few days late with this – an interesting article from the Independent on Sunday:

An Independent on Sunday investigation has revealed that more than 2,000 websites promoting terrorism have been taken offline since 2010 by the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism internet referral unit. Experts are now bombarding extremist websites to create “counter-narrative” messages from survivors of terrorism. Former radicals also infiltrate forums to spread doubt and challenge the extremist rhetoric.

…A second group fighting to combat extremist propaganda, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, implants messages of peace when people try to access radical websites. Ross Frenett, programme manager for the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network, says the hope is to make potential extremists refrain from meeting radicalising influences in the real world. “We use survivors of terrorism and formers [those formerly radicalised]. People who have been personally touched by the violence are very difficult to dismiss: those who have lost a loved one or a limb. And someone who has been on the inside and come out the other side is very credible,” he said.

That seems to be a good approach to the problem – honest engagement seeking to give a different perspective based on experience. More about the AVE Network can be seen here.

A slightly more spiky approach to challenging on-line extremism was discussed in a Wired article last year:

The program, called Viral Peace, seeks to occupy the virtual space that extremists fill, one thread or Twitter exchange at a time. Shahed Amanullah, a senior technology adviser to the State Department and Viral Peace’s creator, tells Danger Room he wants to use “logic, humor, satire, [and] religious arguments, not just to confront [extremists], but to undermine and demoralize them.”

…The U.S. has thought of several strategies for confronting the not-so-new wave of online extremism, from apparent DDoS attacks on extremist websites to infiltrating them using fake jihadi personas….

Amanullah has a different view. You don’t necessarily need to deface the forums if you can troll them to the point where their most malign influences are neutralized.

Given that infiltration via “fake jihadi personas” is a proven recipe for disaster, it’s good to see Amanullah suggesting something different.

Engaging with and challenging the users of extremist websites is important and urgent work – but I’d like to see some sort of serious discussion about it should be done ethically and sensibly. I’ve seen keyboard vigilantes and hucksters seek to incite extremists using sockpuppets, either to “expose” them or to play out weird power games; anyone who wants to be taken seriously needs to keep distance from that kind of thing.

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