By Aliénor De Steur, M.A. Candidate, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
The Internet is the new recruitment field for many terrorist groups, and social media is their favorite tool. Indeed, it is rather easy to find propaganda videos or accounts that praise organizations like ISIS luring people to “join the fight” overseas. More and more westerners fall for this: 130 Canadians are estimated to have left to join extremist groups in the Middle East. This phenomenon of radicalization is not confined to Canada: since 2011, between 2000 and 5500 Europeans left (that only for Syria) to fight with militant groups. So, what is being done to stop this process?
The majority of the measures taken by the Canadian government intervene after the radicalization of those individuals. Passport revocation, criminalization of terrorism promotion, or preventive arrests without warrant, are all measures taken once radicalization occurred, to prevent the individuals affected to cause harm. However, this is not stopping young Canadians to be radicalized and recruited via social media and internet propaganda. What can be done, then?
Some countries tried to fight this phenomenon with the terrorist’s own tool: social media. For instance, in France, the government produced a video exposing the lies presented in jihadist’s propaganda. Another example of such measures is the US campaign of “Think Again, Turn Away” that also issued few videos and is quite present on Twitter. However, these strategies are often criticized by the media or population and described as ridiculous.
What are those criticisms? A major one would be that the audience is not correctly targeted. First, the messages are in English, which can give more visibility, certainly, but also compromises the legitimacy and the range of such messages. Second, by presenting videos made by terrorist groups and then show how they lie, they give more visibility to those actual videos. These campaigns even use graphic images to prove their point, doing exactly what terrorists groups would want: spreading terror. Third, the videos and messages are unlikely to pop on the screen of someone looking for ISIS propaganda video. Their tags, titles, and locations are not giving them a lot of visibility to the concerned individuals. Lastly, the form these campaigns take can encourage backfiring and are sometimes clumsy in their use of humor. A lot of examples of these situations can be taken from the U.S. and France’s campaign.
Is Canada doing better, and is an effective social media strategy to counter radicalization even possible? The government launched this year a similar program called “Extreme Dialogue“, which is composed of a series of short documentaries and of resources for schools to implement an anti-radicalization information program. This campaign’s goal is to give tools to recognize radicalization, in an effort to stop it before it’s too late. Is this strategy and program effective in reducing radicalization? It is hard to tell since it was launched last February, but a few worries can be named. First, the public targeted is still not the right one. Indeed, this is not aimed directly at those at risk of radicalization: as explained before, they won’t stumble on those videos by chance while looking for pro-ISIS-propaganda. However, this is not completely useless: the fight against radicalization is also made through friends, family, teacher, etc. With this program, this part of the population is given more tools to detect, and hopefully stop, radicalization. Nonetheless, this indirect reach is not sufficient and only addresses one aspect of anti-radicalization strategy. Moreover, the popularity of the program is still to be proven: with less than 800 followers on Twitter, the visibility is low. We are far from a fair fight. But, again, does that mean the program is useless? Not necessarily. It can still give tools to help detect radicalization and is also showing that the government is at least trying to address this pressing issue.
In the end, a lot of criticisms have been stated, but not a lot of solutions have been proposed. What could enhance counter-propaganda? To start with, the language used in those kinds of campaigns could be closer to the one used by terrorist groups. This would give them more visibility to the right audience and will reach more people that are concerned. Another would be to stop using rational arguments to fight emotional ones. The discourse of terrorist groups is based on ideas and on emotions, a feeling generally not conveyed by government campaigns. Finally, like the CSCC’s (Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications of the U.S. Department of State) coordinator Alberto Fernandez proposes, we could include a more “positive” narrative instead of a “negative “one. We shouldn’t say “don’t do this”, we should say “do this instead”.