The idea that the Internet plays a disproportionate role in extremist radicalization is seriously flawed, according to a new report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a multinational think tank.
The report, "Countering Online Radicalization: A Strategy for Action (pdf)," argues "the Internet can play a role in radicalization, but that so far it has not been the principal driver of the process."
Therefore, radicalization cannot be dealt with by simply "pulling the plug."
Radicalization in the real world, the report says, is dependent on face-to-face interactions and cites academic evidence that no current and former Islamic radicals interviewed during a survey reported being radicalized or recruited solely through the Internet.
The virtual world does play an important part by creating an echo chamber that inundates and reinforces the indoctrinated with similar ideas and assumptions that would be contested outside extremist blogs, forums, or Web sites. The Internet also makes it easier for like-minded extremists to find each other and integrate into formal organizations, the report says.
So while the Internet helps to keep someone radicalized, "[s]elf-radicalization and self-recruitment via the Internet with little or no relation to the outside world rarely happens," the report notes, "and there is no reason to suppose that this situation will change in the near future."
Governments, the report argues, need to understand this. Otherwise, they will implement ill-advised policies that will waste resources or harm their popular legitimacy, particularly democratic governments.
Many governments have tried technical solutions to remove, restrict, or hide extremist content from their people's eyes. The report, however, says these actions are not only prohibitively expensive but doomed to failure for many reasons.
First, government restriction only creates buzz that drives people to see what's being censored. Second, no matter how technologically sophisticated government efforts to restrict online content are, someone will always find a way to get their content online. Third, government restrictions, the report warns, play into the hands of extremists as "some of the banned Web sites and their operators would gain kudos from being blacklisted, thereby negating the intention behind the decision to block them."
This will also lead to political problems for democratic governments that pledge to support freedom of information. Any move to restrict what citizens can freely read, see, or hear will be met with fierce opposition, especially since it will probably single out one community among many.
Using England as an example, the report argues that if government "blacklists were to contain mostly Islamist Web sites, this might serve to feed a sense of exclusion and create the impression that the government is restricting Muslims' freedom of expression."
Rather than go down the road of restricting free expression, the report argues governments should adopt four interconnected strategies to fight online radicals.
First, the government should strategically prosecute extremists that solicit murder online or stoke racial and religious hatred. "The advantage of focusing on individuals is that, by all accounts, the number of people involved in running extremist Web sites and forums is small when compared to the number they attract," the report says.
The government should also promote the Internet's self-regulation. Users would then be responsible for finding extremist or offensive content and reporting it to the platform provider. In December, YouTube reconfigured its internal reporting process to allow users to do just this and made a statement that it will not tolerate extremists using its Web site to spread hate by partnering with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The third thing for governments to do is promote media literacy among children. There are already efforts in countries to protect children from online sex offenders and pornography. Governments should extend these efforts to online extremism and pressure schools and parents to teach children how to recognize hate speech and extremist propaganda and what to do when they encounter it, the report says.
Fourth, governments should set up an independent fund to finance grassroot efforts to combat extremism online. By giving small grants to a multitude of initiatives, the fund could help different voices from the community at large take the fight for hearts and minds online and confront extremists on their own playing field, thereby showing users there is more than just the extremist message to consider.
The fund, however, would have to be independent; otherwise, it would be seen as a government tool to manipulate or coerce political opinion.