Séraphin Alava
Divina Frau-Meigs
Ghayda Hassan
Publication Date

"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."

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) observes that the internet offers significant possibilities for supporting the fulfillment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and advancing human rights, including access to information, freedom of expression, and privacy. Certain forms of internet use and internet-related effects may also lead to violations of these rights. UNESCO therefore seeks to promote awareness among all stakeholders, to foster debate, and to find solutions towards mitigating adverse outcomes. Part of this effort is to commission this study to provide a global mapping of research (mainly during 2012-16) into the assumed roles played by social media in violent radicalisation processes, especially when they affect youth and women. With the help of a multidisciplinary and multicultural team, the report uses a multi-level approach to capture the complexity of the phenomenon by:

  • Taking into consideration the vulnerability factors of youth, such as identity struggles, behavioural problems, delinquency, and quest for significance;
  • Examining the role of the internet and social media with regards to exposure to violence and indoctrination methods as well as dissemination of information; and
  • Exploring how extremist recruiters use available narratives and discourses to attract and bond with young people.

Specifically, Section 1 introduces the Report, its objectives, and its structure. Thereafter, definitions are discussed in Section 2. Then, based on a bibliometric and scientific study of research conducted in Europe, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Arab world, and parts of Africa and Asia on the links between the use of social media and the phenomena of radicalisation, the report analyses more than 550 studies published in scientific literature and "grey literature". It shows that, 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 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 pedaegogical practice with a specific set of skills that can respond to narratives of anger and revenge. These initiatives also aim at creating digital counter-narrative, especially in terms of countering injustice and experiences of discrimination, corruption, and abuse by security forces. Online counter-narratives and grassroots anti-propaganda initiatives, offline and online, tend to be limited in scope and suffer from lack of funding, which prevents them from maintaining their online presence and reaching out to young people in process of radicalisation. This also prevents such programmes from being evaluated for effectiveness. Other programmes seek to engage youth directly, for their own empowerment primarily, on the premise that MIL can positively participate in the marginalisation of violent extremism - if not its containment. Overall, few MIL initiatives have been assessed for efficiency. The diverse initiatives that have been implemented in several countries are generally presented as improving youths' critical competences to navigate online, but no evidence could be located on their efficacy in reducing the risk of online violent radicalisation.

Section 7 stresses that the current state of evidence on the link between the internet, social media, and violent radicalisation 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 are drawn, most studies are of low methodological quality, small-scale, and reliant 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 the internet and social media may play a role in the violent radicalisation 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.

In Section 8, analysis of the effects of social media on violent radicalisation shows that there is a small amount of qualitative data on the subject. "One major caveat in literature stems from the fact that many research frames have turned into myths, buzz words and Internet memes that could be detrimental to the image of young people and to the image of the Internet at large such as: the network metaphor, the echo chamber, the lone wolf, the greenbird. These labels paradoxically feed into the communication strategies of many extremist groups, by granting them power over setting the agenda and the narratives and helping them monopolize attention to their issues..." The synthesis of evidence shows, at its best, that social media is an environment that facilitates violent radicalisation, rather than driving it. "Researchers face significant empirical, methodological and ethical challenges, which may partly account for the current state of the literature....Significantly, the lack of evidence of direct causation itself is valuable because it cautions against any policy measures that take for granted such a link, and which - on this basis - could limit rights to expression, privacy and association without substantive justification."

Section 9 offers conclusions, including these general observations:

  • The process of online radicalization of youth is a global and multi-faceted phenomenon in which social media are used as a strategic tool to try to incite violent behaviour.
  • The role of such social media should not be isolated but seen in the context of both other communicational platforms and significant social factors such as the political, social, cultural, economic, and psychological causes.
  • There are insufficient studies that effectively address the role of communication in reinforcing or countering incitement for radicalisation towards violent extremism.
  • Research confirms, however, that many uses of social media by terrorists are meant to foster fear among internet users in general and to polarise societies. In addition, the ambition includes incitement and recruitment of individuals to join their cause and engage in violence. At the same time, the actual reception and impact of online radicalisation efforts needs much more study.
  • Attempts to combat internet dimensions of the violent radicalisation of youth do not have proven efficacy, but it is clear that they can damage online freedoms, especially freedom of expression, freedom of information, privacy, and the right to association.
  • International standards of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimate purpose are essential in considering any limitations of media, including social media.
  • There is a need to further explore and research how both online and offline platforms can be harnessed to mobilise young people to develop narratives of peace, promote inclusion, equality, and intercultural dialogue.
  • There is a need to highlight the importance of reliable information, such as professional and independent journalism, as a factor in countering inciteful narratives that mobilise falsehoods to promote their objectives.

A series of recommendations are presented, such as these communication-related examples:

States could:

  • Strengthen cooperation with the international community and all relevant actors in order to join efforts to prevent youth radicalisation and combat violent extremism in all its forms.
  • Reinforce a global dialogue about proportionate positive actions to counter radicalisation and place it within the remit of UNESCO's Internet Universality Principles (Rights, Openness, Accessibility, and Multistakeholder participation), which promote a human rights-based approach, and keep perspective on the benefits of the internet at the same time as mitigating abuses.
  • Strengthen the overall education sector responses to violent extremism, including through human-rights based Global Citizenship Education (GCED) programmes and teachers and other youth mediators' trainings.
  • Promote and evaluate MIL strategies, recognising that new technologies are also a tool that can be used for: preventing violent extremism; encouraging counter and alternative narratives; advancing citizen education; and developing critical thinking.
  • Take into account and encourage the participation of youth in decision-making processes, in line with the UN General Assembly Resolution 2250, and empower them to lead new digital projects in favor of peace, tolerance, and mutual understanding.
  • Recognise the changing status of women as both actors and targets of online radicalisation, and support greater representation of women (and young people) in relevant research projects.
  • Deepen engagement with civil society organisations, relevant local communities, and non-governmental actors acknowledging their role in contributing to the effectiveness of the implementation of counter-terrorism national plans and strategies.
  • Support research institutions and scholars to study online violent radicalisation in the wider context of other dimensions, at a greater scale and quality, and through regional and global networks.

Private sector, the media, and internet intermediaries could:

  • Ensure professional and conflict-sensitive journalistic coverage by providing verifiable information and informed opinion and be cognisant of language and narratives that can foster division, hatred, and violent radicalisation.
  • Sensitise news media online and offline to avoid pitfalls of fearmongering, stereotyping, confirmation bias, fake news, and the creation of "media panics", and to reassert the importance of media ethics in the face of radicalisation of young people for violent extremism.
  • Evolve social media Terms of Service in a consultative manner so as to ensure a legal and proportionate basis for action, especially in relation to governments or other third party pressures for tracking, disclosing, or sharing information about young users, and for removal of content aimed at inciting radicalisation towards violent extremism.
  • Define and manage expressions of hate without compromising rights to freedom of expression.

Civil society and internet users could:

  • Increase efforts of civil society organisations to leverage social media to drive the formulation and dissemination of peaceful messages, alternative, and counter-narratives that challenge terrorist propaganda and hate speech.
  • Promote civil society organisations as advocates for empowering counter-narratives and building participatory communities around peaceful values.
  • Support family-based networks online and offline, along with parental influence, and invest in social fabric that can moderate feelings of alienation amongst youth.
  • Promote literacies that favour non-violent conflict resolution and a culture of peace.
  • Educate internet users about ethical online behaviour, privacy issues, and the risks associated with the disclosure of personal data and other potentially sensitive information (through social media), as well as how to recognise and flag illegal content/activities and terrorist abuse of social networks.

UNESCO Clearinghouse on Global Citizenship Education, December 11 2017. Image credit: © Shutterstock