IDEA UK discusses the link between social media and extremism

Social media is the communication channel of our time, and extremism, particularly terrorism, is one of the currently dominant concerns. Both come together amid fears of how social media helps terrorists have a reach they otherwise would not have. IDEA UK and Integrity’s public discussion on the topic of social media and extremism last night brought together experts and interested members of the public to consider the interaction of these two trends. With us were Alex Murray a specialist in verification & social media at the BBC, Dr. Farid Panjwani, Director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME), and Louis Reynolds a researcher within the Citizenship and Political Participation programme at Demos.

All three provided very different perspectives on the issue. Alex offered us an interesting insight into using social media to follow jihadis and those travelling to join Islamic State in Syria. Social media is an area where extremists have seen the potential to use it both as a communications and recruitment tool as “jihadis have an excellent understanding of the game mechanics of social media”. The authorities attempts at countering it have often been ham fisted taking down accounts but this simply “feeds the narrative that there is a social media war”, one which is unlikely to be won by head on attack.

Dr Farid Panjwani provided a much more academic viewpoint with lots of facts and figures. More than 46,000 twitter accounts have been supporting ISIS (not all at the same time) with on average 1000 followers showing the scale of the issue. Dr Farid focused on the question of why young educated Muslims are attracted to extremism through social media. He likened the answer to a three legged stool of attraction; the need for an ideology as an alternative to capitalism (or socialism) to provide a ‘solution’, the problem that “there is a dearth of humanities and critical thinking in Islamic society”, and that there are flaws in how Islam is taught highlighting a golden age and idea of there being a true Islam.    

Louis Reynolds brought a wider perspective encompassing extremist organisations such as the EDL in the UK rather than just Islamic extremists. He highlighted that “the effect on extremist groups is the effect social media has had on politics as a whole”; it empowers those otherwise disempowered, it allows everyone to communicate freely without reference to geography, so encouraging groups based on ideology or identity. And most worryingly it creates an echo chamber and a filter on information. On the internet “we do not connect with the whole world but with other people we agree with”. Because people connect on the basis of interest or ideology on the internet they won’t encounter as many alternative viewpoints, and when someone does not encounter anyone saying different things they are likely to become more extreme in their viewpoint. As a great enabler social media has got rid of the gatekeeper of traditional media journalists allowing conspiracy theories to thrive and with them more extreme ideas.

The questioning focused in various ways on what is to be done. This is something which everyone, including authorities around the world are still grappling with so perhaps there is no comprehensive solution to be found. However there were common themes in our discussion; increasing diversity in the traditional media, increasing education, a willingness to keep an open mind, and the need to consider that each process of radicalisation is different with a need for a potentially different response. Critical thinking is clearly important. When asked for a final comment on what to do the three panellists responses were; encourage scepticism, encourage people to engage with arguments they disagree with, and the need for spaces where young people feel safe to think and question.    

Louis Reynolds has a literature review of social media intelligence capabilities for counter terrorism published today which is available for free on demos’ website