The authors of a far-reaching report on the Internet and Islamic extremism have called on the Foreign Office to take a more active role in Twitter debates and challenge views which encourage young Britons to participate in jihad.
Quilliam, the counter-extremist organisation, also called for schoolchildren to be given lessons in “digital literacy and critical consumption” so that they can better appraise the information they receive via social media.
In its report, Jihad Trending: A Comprehensive Analysis of Online Extremism and How to Counter It, Quilliam criticised the British government’s “counterproductive” policy of tackling the problem by simply shutting down websites.
“Censorship has become a means for them to show that they doing more than they actually are,” said Ghaffar Hussain, one of the authors of the report, which found that blocking sites did “not represent a real solution to countering online extremism” because jihadis took their messages to other parts of the web.
The report called for the British Government to establish a new vehicle on social media “that clarifies government policies and debunks propaganda”.
Mr Hussain told The Independent that the Foreign Office should follow the US State Department and adopt a more proactive strategy on Twitter. “The British Government needs to recognise that young people get their information from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube,” he said. “Extremists are monopolising the narrative of the online debate on issues such as Syria – where is the British Government engaging with them and giving them other options?”
The report highlighted the importance of “counterspeech” messaging on Islamic websites which challenge terrorism using “theologically-rooted counter messaging”.
But it said sites such as Islam Against Extremism and Radical Middle Way "could benefit from better content production and upkeep” and called for such “grassroots initiatives” to be given more public and private sector training and funding to help them become more popular. “In the current environment young people are more likely to frequent sites of a more extremist orientation since these sites not only target the youth directly… but also offer a firm sense of identity and deal with difficult topics.”
The authors rejected the popular notion of the “lone wolf” terrorist radicalised by the Internet, saying that in almost all cases the individuals had established contact with like-minded people offline prior to conducting research on the web. “The Internet is not creating radicals in isolation from the real world,” said Hussain.
In compiling its report Quilliam looked at the online activities of 30 Islamic extremist groups with a presence in the United Kingdom or France. It noted that Boko Haram, the group responsible for the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, has a dedicated Facebook page with more than 7,500 likes.
The authors found that the most popular Jihadist clips on YouTube were so-called “martyr hailing” films in praise of jihadis who had been killed, with clips of suicide bombings being the second most popular category. It also highlighted the popularity of Salafi Media UK, linked to the Al-Mujahiroun extremist group which was banned by the Blair government. It’s most successful film, “I Used To Be a… Gangster!” in which a former gunman describes his conversion to Islam inside prison, has had nearly 20,000 views.
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