Government censorship is not helping to combat Islamist extremism, according to a new report. The counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation instead calls on legislators to create a new “social media outlet” that debunks extremist propaganda and clarifies government policies.
The report says that attempts by governments to censor extremist material have proved futile. Although governments increasingly rely on censorship, the report finds that not only are these measures costly and ineffective, they can actually be counter-productive.
The report says that governments should instead adopt ‘positive’ measures, such as online initiatives that counter extremist ideas. It says that these have proven much more effective than censorship yet there are still far too few counter-extremist materials available.
One of the measures the government could adopt is a “social media outlet” where people can easily find materials that counter extremist claims. This would also act as a forum, where various people involved in counter-extremism can meet online and share ideas.
Other recommendations include teaching children ‘online literacy’ in schools and improving their critical thinking skills so they can look at extremist material sceptically. It also calls on the government to provide funding and training for grassroots activists in spotting and fighting extremism.
It adds that the biggest effort in combating extremism should come from the voluntary sector:
Ideally, counter-extremism should be a civil society led effort and, as such, online initiatives should be led and implemented by third sector organisations. Counter-messaging needs to appear organic and authentic; driven by ordinary individuals and activists that are motivated by a desire to uphold and defend the values they hold dear. Civil society, in this context, also needs to be free of governmental and corporate control in order to develop a life of its own built by the energy and creativity of ordinary members of society.
The report also says that people rarely become indoctrinated into Islamist extremism without first being exposed to it in their social circle. The internet should therefore not be seen as a “cause” of indoctrination, but rather as a facilitator and catalyst.
In 2010, 21-year-old student Roshonara Choudhary tried to assassinate the Labour MP Stephen Timms by stabbing him. She was the first person in Britain to attempt an assassination after being inspired by Al Qaeda’s online material.
At the time, it was thought she was a “lone wolf” who had been indoctrinated purely by searching for extremist material online, but it later emerged that she already had close personal relationships people holding extreme ideologies and actively sought out the videos of an extremist preacher.
Anthony Glee, head of security studies at Buckingham University, backed up the findings of the Quilliam Foundation’s points by telling the Times: “Lone wolves let everybody off the hook.”
“Everybody had a vested interest in saying that she radicalised herself online. It was a very convenient judgement for MI5, for her university tutors, because it implied that nothing could have been done in order to turn her from terror.”
He added: “I don’t believe that people can be radicalised just by looking at things on a computer screen, they need to be in the right mindset in order for what they are looking at fuels their resentment to such an extent that they turn into killers.”