July 21, 2018

Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media: A Research by UNESCO

Does social media lead vulnerable individuals to resort to violence? Many people believe it does. And they respond with online censorship, surveillance and counter-speech. But what do we really know about the Internet as a cause, and what do we know about the impact of these reactions? All over the world, governments and Internet companies are making decisions on the basis of assumptions about the causes and remedies to violent attacks. The challenge is to have analysis and responses firmly grounded. The need is for a policy that is constructed on the basis of facts and evidence, and not founded on hunches – or driven by panic and fearmongering. It is in this context that UNESCO has commissioned the study titled Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media – Mapping the Research. This work provides a global mapping of research (mainly during 2012-16) about the assumed roles played by social media in violent radicalization processes, especially when they affect youth and women. The research responds to the belief that the Internet at large is an active vector for violent radicalization that facilitates the proliferation of violent extremist ideologies. Indeed, much research shows that protagonists are indeed heavily spread throughout the Internet. There is a growing body of knowledge about how terrorists use cyberspace. Less clear, however, is the impact of this use, and even more opaque is the extent to which counter measures are helping to promote peaceful alternatives. While Internet may play a facilitating role, it is not established that there is a causative link between it and radicalization towards extremism, violent radicalization, or the commission of actual acts of extremist violence. Section 1 introduces the Report, its objectives and its structure. Thereafter, definitions are discussed in Section 2. Sections 3, 4, and 5. Based on a bibliometric and scientific study of research conducted in Europe, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Arab world, parts of Africa and Asia on the links between the use of social media and the phenomena of radicalization, the Report analyzes more than 550 studies published in scientific literature and “grey literature”, covering outputs in English (260), French (196) and Arabic (96). It shows that very little research has focused on the effective role of the use of social media in violent radicalization. Although many articles deal with electronic strategies and the use of the Internet and online social media for recruitment, there are very few empirical studies that describe and examine the real effects of these strategies on youth, and they rarely examine gender aspects. Section 6. The Report examines the specificities of online prevention initiatives: counter/ alternative narratives and media information literacy (MIL). Several formal and informal MIL initiatives have been implemented around the world according to MIL as a pedagogical practice with a specific set of skills that can respond to narratives of anger and revenge. These initiatives also aim at creating digital counter-narratives that reflect youth perceptions of itself and others, especially in terms of countering injustice, experiences of discrimination,
6 Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media – Mapping the Research
corruption and abuse by security forces. Other programs target youth directly, for their own empowerment primarily, on the premise that MIL can positively participate in the marginalization of violent extremism if not its containment. Section 7. The current state of evidence on the link between Internet, social media and violent radicalization is very limited and still inconclusive, and particularly in the field of information and communication sciences as compared to other disciplines (history, sociology, psychology). Most of the reviewed studies remain predominantly descriptive and whenever empirical data is drawn, most studies are of low methodological quality, small-scale and rely on limited data sets. As a result, they fail to provide evidence on the drivers of interest to extremist sites, engagement in social media on these issues, the reasons for influence of content and the external and internal correlated factors, as well as the trajectories of youth who come to perpetrate violent acts. This being said, some evidence also suggests that Internet and social media may play a role in the violent radicalization process, mainly through the dissemination of information and propaganda, as well as the reinforcement, identification and engagement of a (self)-selected audience that is interested in radical and violent messages. Sections 8. In this section, analysis of the effects of social media on the violent radicalization shows that there is a small amount of qualitative data on the subject, in contrast with the literature on the empowerment of young people on the secure use of the Internet. While there is an increase of the the ‘grey’ literature, the academic field is more under-researched and under-theorized. Moreover, several studies lack important methodological measures such as case studies, small data sets (small-scale corpus, limited data sets, instantaneous analyses). The exact roles and processes through which Internet and social media contribute to the process of radicalization still need to be explored. However, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that there is a causal link between extremist propaganda or recruitment on social networks and the violent radicalization of young people. The synthesis of evidence shows, at its best, that social media is an environment that facilitates violent radicalization, rather than driving it. Section 9. This section offers recommendations that can be useful for various stakeholders. Violent radicalization of youth needs to be taken as a complex process, in which social media are not separated from other communication platforms, and from various offline factors. While reception of online radicalization efforts is still under-researched, the activities and uses of social media by terrorists are well known. Research confirms that many of these uses are meant to foster fear among Internet users in general, in addition to ambitions to recruit or incite individuals to join their cause and engage in violence. Attempts to prevent Internet dimensions of the violent radicalization of youth do not have proven efficacy, but on the other hand it is clear that they can damage online freedoms, especially freedom of expression, freedom of information, privacy and the right to association. More explicitly theorized and evidence-based results are needed concerning both radicalization processes online and the outcomes of online prevention and policy measures.

Read more about this report: Youth and Violent Extremism on social media

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