While counter-speech is an integral part, it cannot be the only mechanism for a successful counter violent extremism strategy.

CVE, digital, counter violent extremism, online, counter-narrative, counter-speech, terrorism, counter-speech, sustainable development goals, Zafar Shobhan, Sara Zeiger, Irfan Saeed, Sean Kanuck, Ankhi Das

From left: Zafar Shobhan, Sara Zeiger, Irfan Saeed, Sean Kanuck, Ankhi Das, Gen. Christopher Deverell

Photolabs@ORF

This essay appeared in Raisina 2017 Conference Report.


For long, the threat from violent extremism was restricted to certain geographies. National security agencies of most countries had developed significant capacities to protect their citizens from terrorism. Post the rise of ISIS, extremists have found a new avenue — the Internet — to recruit individuals susceptible to propagandas, and thereafter, carry out terror strikes in different parts of the world.

There are over 3.5 billion people who use the Internet today. It is predicted by 2020, over half of the world's population will have access to Internet. In the developing world, Sustainable Development Goals will be predicated on the Internet. In a nutshell, the Internet is fast approaching the status of 'utility' rather than 'luxury'. Given this scenario, the challenges for governments, companies, and individuals, on the one hand is to ensure the advantages the Internet aren't undermined, and on the other, developing tools to counter the misuse of the Internet's vast reach.

One such tool is strategic communication or effective counter-speech. Terrorists are able to radicalise individuals online through a certain propaganda machine. This propaganda resonates with inherent radical tendencies of citizens, irrespective of their geographies. There is therefore a need to put out a counter-narrative that combats the narrative of the terrorists. This counter-narrative need not always come from governments and government officials. In fact, counter-narratives that are bottom-up and citizen led, have the potential to be more effective than a top-down approach. The first step in counter-narratives therefore is identifying individuals and organisations that have the capability to deconstruct, undermine, and discredit the messages of violent extremists. These key messengers might be NGOs, religious figures, teachers, students, social workers, parents, and peers.

The second step is for governments, and indeed private sector companies to empower and equip these key messengers with the relevant skills and knowledge, in order to produce effective counter-narratives. Partnering with universities, NGOs, civil society organisations, etc., to enhance their ability to identify violent speech; equipping them to highlight mis-information; and building their capacities to put forth an effective positive message, are all parts of an effective counter-speech strategy.

While the above two measures are demand-side factors, where there is counter-speech being created to discredit violent extremism, there are also supply side techniques that need to be developed. A framework, that has taken its first steps, is the collaboration between major Internet players such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to create a database of hashes. What this allows companies to do is to flag terrorist content with each other and then make sure that this doesn't go viral. This seeks to choke the supply chain and thereby reduce the reach of terrorist propaganda. The next step therefore should be for governments and such platforms to collaborate and create a database of effective counter-speech and ensure its supply is fast-tracked.

The collaborative process, between governments, private sector organisations, and civil society groups, must not be limited to an in-country process. To successfully implement a counter-speech strategy, all these three groups will need to collaborate with each other across borders. Given the nature the digital space, G2G, G2B, G2P, and all other such permutations and combinations must be the foundations of a holistic counter-narrative strategy. Successful practices such as the one in the U.K. where a unit in the Home Office is responsible for helping build capacity in civil society to confront and challenge the ideology of terrorists, must be shared with other nations and adapted to local needs.

While counter-speech is an integral part of countering violent extremism online, it cannot be the only mechanism for a successful CVE strategy. Law enforcement agencies, including police and intelligence communities, too have a critical role to play. In the UK for instance, a dedicated police counter-terrorism unit refers content that they deem contravenes UK legislation to the communication service providers. If the providers agree that the material that has been referred to them breaches their terms and conditions, they remove it voluntarily. Since its inception in 2010, the work of this unit has resulted in the removal of more than 220,000 pieces of terrorist related content. Some platforms have simple and easy flagging mechanisms for the public to report content and some also prioritise law enforcement referrals for terrorist content. This means law enforcement and service providers can respond together, and that too at a fast pace.

Time has come for all countries to set up similar units, both at the national and at the sub-national level, that deal with the issue of online extremism. Building on such an exercise, it is also time to encourage and perhaps demand that more, if not all companies, in conjunction with law enforcement agencies, come up with a set of standards for countering violent extremism. This will allow both to respond at an even faster pace and ensure the online medium is no longer a friendly for terror outfits.


Cyber space is being used to propagate radical ideologies and promote violence online which are then being manufactured or realised in the real world. — Sean Kanuck, Distinguished Fellow, ORF


It is important to underscore that just because terror outfits have been successful in leveraging the Internet for violent acts, the Internet is an unsafe domain — this would be akin to suggesting just because accidents take place on highways, we should not have highways. Much of the economic prosperity of the 21st century will be predicated on the effective utilisation of the Internet.

There are however gaps in the existing frameworks which need to be plugged to ensure a safe web for all.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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