Countering Jihadist Propaganda Is Harder Than It Seems

The Canadian government has launched a new program to stop young people from being radicalized, but its success is far from certain.

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Feb 20 2015, 8:56pm

Screenshot of a tweet from @abu_muhajir1 (now suspended).

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In January 2014, Calgary's Christianne Boudreau learned about the death of her son, 22-year-old Damian Clairmont, in a tweet from an Islamic State fighter.

As Boudreau told VICE, she believed her son had traveled to Cairo 14 months earlier to study Arabic. It wasn't until members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) questioned Boudreau about her son that she discovered he had actually traveled to Syria to fight against the Assad regime with an al Qaeda–affiliated rebel group and, later, for the Islamic State. According to Abu Muhajir's Tumblr eulogy to Clairmont, the young man's path to Syria began with a chance encounter in a Calgary Tim Hortons, but it's likely that Clairmont had already encountered online propaganda that made him susceptible to Abu Muhajir's extremist ideology. Ironically, it was the Islamic State's reach on social media that allowed Boudreau to learn of her son's fate.

It's also why she participated in Extreme Dialogue, a Canada-wide social media campaign launched earlier this week to reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies to young people. The campaign was funded by the Canadian government via the Kanishka Project and created by an "international consortium" of nonprofits and charities. It's goal is to provide counter-narratives to those spread by violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State or white supremacist gangs. The Extreme Dialogue Facebook and Twitter accounts direct users to a website that hosts a ten-minute video about Boudreau and her son, as well as a video about Daniel Gallant, a former neo-Nazi from northern British Columbia who describes his indoctrination as a young man into white supremacist communities and his eventual "disengagement" from those activities and beliefs.

According to Rachel Briggs, who worked on the campaign as a part of the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the goal of the campaign is to provide young people with the critical thinking skills to interpret the extremist messages they may encounter online. "We can't stop young people from coming across this content," says Briggs, "so it's an attempt to make sure that they have got the skills and the knowledge to see that propaganda for what it is when they come across it."

When the Islamic State began showing up in headlines last year, it seemed to arrive with a professionally trained marketing team for recruitment, savvy in video production and social media. "Quite frankly, I think ISIS are offering us a master class in how to use multimedia and how to use social media to serve your aims," says Briggs.

One example of this is an English-language recruitment video released last July, replete with gorgeous images of Canadian wilderness ripped from tourism advertisements, which featured a 21-year-old Abu Muslim (a.k.a. André Poulin, another Canadian teenager-turned-IS-militant killed in battle in 2013) pitching fellow Canadians on the merits of joining the Islamic State. "They use incredibly slick, well-produced, emotionally engaging, well-messaged content," says Briggs. "They pump it out at a rate that we can only aspire towards."

At the same time, the social media expertise of IS is astounding, with a heavy presence on Twitter and an Android app that facilitates the spread of their message far beyond their military presence in Syria and Iraq.

"We've talked a lot about the need to tackle extremist propaganda," says Briggs, "but we've done pretty much nothing more than talking." However, previous attempts by Western governments to battle Islamic State recruitment on social media have actually backfired.

A French campaign called Stop Djihadisme was harshly criticized after spreading an infographic that suggested French citizens should report people to a hotline for not eating baguettes. In the United States, the State Department created a campaign called "Think Again Turn Away" that shares articles about atrocities committed by the Islamic State over Twitter and Facebook; in a scathing criticism of the campaign, Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence, a company that tracks online extremist behavior, accused the Department of State of providing Islamic State supporters with a soapbox from which to spread their views by engaging with them directly on these platforms.

Briggs suggests that Extreme Dialogue differs from those examples in one critical way: "Extreme Dialogue is not a counter-radicalization tool. It's a tool for enhancing critical thinking so that kids, if and when they come across extremist propaganda, can see it for what it is." In addition to its social media presence, Extreme Dialogue is also being made available to teachers, parents, and community leaders as a resource for educating young people. "It is a program and a set of products that we want to get mainstreamed... we want this to reach the Canadian school system across the board."

However, there are concerns that the campaign videos don't do enough to address the nuts and bolts of how young people are actually recruited into extremist communities.

"Overall I'm pleased with it. It's good," says professor Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo who specializes in the process of radicalization in homegrown terrorist groups "My concern is that both of the videos concentrate a bit too much just on the personal stories of the individuals and they don't concentrate enough on debunking the message [of extremist groups]."

He's also concerned that the campaign, which will primarily be shown in school presentations, isn't reaching the marginalized individuals who are mostly likely to travel to Syria or engage in violence. "I'm not sure how this is getting into the hands of the right people," he says. Young people at risk often feel alienated and marginalized from society, and may have even dropped out of school.

Both Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the two men responsible for the attacks last year on the Canadian military in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa, respectively, had histories of mental illness. Similarly, the Extreme Dialogue videos explain that Damian Clairmont suffered depression and dropped out of high school before traveling to Syria while Daniel Gallant was a victim of child abuse before being recruited by white supremacists. It is unlikely that a campaign such as Extreme Dialogue could have reached individuals like this before they committed acts of violence.

However, Dawson concedes that the campaign could be effective for younger Canadians who haven't been reached yet. "We all know that the cops coming in to school and giving the ant-idrug lecture to the public school or the high school doesn't really stop all of the kids who are already stoners from using," he says. "But it does have an impact on younger, more impressionable kids, and it might turn some of them away from when they are first tempted by their friends or something."

For Briggs, that is exactly what the program is meant to do, but for extremist propaganda rather than peer pressure. "We are very much further upstream in the preventative stage," she says. Though she doesn't want to negate the need for resources to help younger Canadians who are already on the path to radicalization, she views Extreme Dialogue as just one tool aimed at a large "mainstream" audience of young people.

"You definitely need other types of approaches that reach people who are already down the path to radicalization or are actually within violent extremist movements," she says. "But you need different things to reach different audiences."

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