Youth, “the Internet” and speech

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Last week, just a few days after my return from Cairo, I stumbled upon an event organised by UNESCO and whose combination of supporting countries amused me. The two-day conference, “Youth and the internet: Fighting radicalisation and extremism”, was supported by Bulgaria and Egypt. Everyone who knows me, understands the amusement. But beyond this fun fact of limited importance, the topic and its relationship to my own work and interests were intriguing enough to dedicate the event a day. I know quite a few people around me are interested in this write-up, I decided to take the time and actually expand it, in a way that it can relate to a broader work I am into: exploring excitable speech through post-colonial lenses in the Balkans and MENA as well as contributing to a project that aims to train citizens to mitigate hate speech online in South Sudan. More on the distinction between ‘hate speech’ and ‘excitable speech’ later (a research paper coming up on that).

I was having my own expectations about the line-up of speakers and the probable directions the discussions would head to. And I was quite correct.

Diversity (or lack thereof)

To start with, female participation was pretty limited. This is not a new fad, we know that female experts and researchers are less represented in general as well as in fora, conferences and the likes. But the female underrepresentation also provoked this sort of nonsense:

How can anyone, in 2015, come up with this bullshit? Which is — even more striking — in a context of work and exchange that favours, highlights, emphasises and calls for inclusion, understanding, nuanced approach and sensibility.(And I will spare you the bewilderment some male researchers and journos I talked to, expressed at Women Without Borders being represented by an elderly male.)

Anyhow, let’s skip the gender bit, for now. There was something else that bugged me: the number of non-youth speaking on behalf of youth. Why not inviting young people? I don’t mean to say that only youth can speak about youth, others have experience, empathy and knowledge to do so. But this doesn’t mean non-youth are the sole entitled to speak about challenges youth (however loosely defined this group is) faces. Inclusion and diversity also means this. I am disappointed as it is very rare to observe target groups being actually actors of happenings and discussions that concern them: if it is about education, we’ll call policy-makers, stars, journalists and perhaps teachers but we’ll rarely if ever will invite learners (pupils, students, kids) to participate and chim in.

Causes of radicalisation

The talks moved to presenting different visions and understandings of why and how radicalisation and extremism spreads online. I was wary of hearing yet again different flavours of the widespread, reductive and short-sighted vision social-networks-and-the-internet-is-guilty-of-terrorism. This happened but — thankfully — was also diversified with more in-depth and nuanced perspectives. One of the participants even mentioned that we can use the online space as a tool to combat extreme speech. Which, against a backdrop of heated debate in France around then-Intelligence Bill and the mass surveillance it enables if promulgated, was a welcome relief.

There was quite some chat around the reasons behind radicalisation. As Iginio Gagliardone (Research Fellow in New Media and Human Rights, Oxford University) pointed out, there is no evidence available on links between Internet and extremism. There are so many (too many) causes suggested: inequalities, ethnic divisions, poverty,… Unfortunately, the few available studies are not enough, but here’s to a couple of good reads anyway:

      • “You Don’t Understand, This is a New War!” Analysis of Hate Speech in News Web Sites’ Comments, Karmen Erjavec & Melita Poler Kovačič, Mass Communication and Society, 2012 (DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2011.619679)
      • ‘STORMFRONT IS LIKE A SECOND HOME TO ME’: On virtual community formation by right-wing extremists, Willem De Koster & Dick Houtman, Information, Communication & Society, 2008 (DOI: 10.1080/13691180802266665)

Understanding why radicalisation happens is key to tackling it: you can come up with all the policies you like, if they don’t adequately address the causes and the mechanisms through which young people fall to extremism, then they are useless and pointless. The same applies to deradicalisation programs: it won’t work unless you have good understanding of what radicalised youth.

Tools and channels

As is the case in an overwhelming majority of events, especially those organised by institutions, discussion generally happens online and during breaks. This event was not the exception. We got to chat on types of speech online: to me, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are somewhat outdated; today, hate speech is channelled through other online tools. This being said, these ‘mastodons’ continue to channel a significant part of online speech. Speaking of means and tools to convey a message is important: the media not only enables differently framed messages but also allows for (or not) different interactions. This may sound like super obvious, and there is anecdotal and empirical evidence to support it — highlighting it in the case of speech searching to impact is of crucial importance. Example from the Umati study which sought to identify and understand the use of dangerous speech in the Kenyan online space:

‘KOT cuffing’ contributed to the fact that only 3% of total hate speech comments collected by Umati originated on Twitter, while 90% were found on Facebook. We use this new term, ‘KOT cuffing’, to refer to a phenomenon observed on Twitter where tweets not acceptable by the status quo are openly shunned, and the author of the tweets publicly ridiculed. The end result is that the offender is forced to retract statements or even close his/her Twitter account altogether.

So, a legit question is: what happens when an increasing amount of online interactions occurs through private and/or (at least allegedly) temporary channels, e.g. WhatsApp, Viber, Snapchat, Secret, Vine? How do we account for these exchanges and mitigate extremism there? Through surveillance? Thanks but no thanks… This shift in communication channels also impacts research though: how are researchers to analyse radicalisation mechanisms if they don’t have access to the content? I would have appreciated a discussion on these topics which were solely scratched by Iginio and yours truly through a few tweets, but went below the radar of the overwhelming majority of the audience.

Then, coming back to the actual role of the online space (sorry, but “the Internet” is something totally different from “social networks” to me), I was glad to hear Hugues Mingarelli asserting once more that “the Internet is rarely the cause for radicalisation for it is merely a facilitator”. Indeed, radicalisation questions social, societal and family interactions and dynamics first and foremost, social networks come at a later stage and have a far more minor role. Recruitment discourse preys on the most fragile using emotional evocations, said Guy Berger (Director at the Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, UNESCO). It is true that many of the young recruits come from disadvantages backgrounds.

Yet, this is not the rule: young recruits can also come from well-off families, which means that they are driven by something different, other than exclusion and social issues. It gives you food for thought for sure: what are these then searching for? It is pretty straightforward for me… — and for others, as illustrated Sami Hourani’s talk. There is a general disenchantment in many, not only young, people, with incessant stories of lack of integrity in the ruling establishment, etc. So, why should it be that surprising that young people find values elsewhere, e.g. in extremist ideologies? What perspective and hope can youth have in countries where their skin colour or patronym are evaluated but not their actual knowledge, expertise and commitment?

“Paroles, paroles, paroles…”

These considerations, about the ‘how’ and the ‘who’ of radicalisation, bring other questions. One such question that we briefly discussed is the language itself. I find this quote from Judith Butler’s book “A Politics of the Performative” particularly relevant and explicit:

“We do things with language, produce effects with language, and we do things to language, but language is also the thing that we do. Language is a name for our doing: both “what” we do (the name for the action that we characteristically perform) and that which we effect, the act and its consequences.”

Vocabulary, i.e. the words we use to describe extremism, matters. But the words that matter even more when aiming to mitigate radicalisation are those used for indoctrination. We have heard a lot about the propaganda and skillful branding approaches ISIS/ISIL/Daech/IS employs. Another, somewhat overlooked, question is what it means for youth on the path to extremism to speak out and alter the vocabulary they use. As Erjavec and Kovačič have shown it in their 2012 study (see above), hate speech can be a way to be heard, to stand out of the noise. Being ‘politically incorrect’ or ‘controversial’ is a way to attract the attention of people who would not otherwise pay attention to you. Some go even further:

The words we use to prevent or counter or mitigate radicalisation are important. This is so obvious that I am somewhat embarrassed to insist on it. Yet, we forget about so obvious truths: as Lynn Davies highlighted it, it is not enough to say to youth, “Don’t be influenced”. That’s the same as, “Don’t smoke”, and has a similar effect: it does not work. This same language is used with adults, from politicians of good will fighting hate speech. Such discourse is infantilising as the person formulating it speaks from a higher moral ground. Then, let’s not be surprised when it does not work.

An additional facet is the language one speaks, as in local/foreign language this time. I don’t remember who made the point that the world was supposed to be better and safer through democracy, but this is actually misleading: the world will be better through diversity and dialogue between cultures, in different languages:

Bridging the off-/online gap (that isn’t)

What about youth participation to public life? How often do we see them actually involved in such activities? How often are they empowered to do so? Regardless of whether they come from disadvantaged or well-off families, radicalised youth is educated. But what do they do with this knowledge when positive social environment and pathways to a bright(er) future are missing? As Khadija Ali, from UNESCO’s local office in Lybia said it, “extremism is not difficult to tackle, IF you give people 1) opportunities 2) alternatives 3) in their own terms.”

This is an apt point as it highlights the effortless approach a majority of decision-makers tend to adopt: let’s blame it on the Internet. I was also frustrated during the event as there was much talk about offline projects like graffiti and public meetings, but not much on how to diversify perspectives in online space or — even more needed — about the fluidity between off- and online spaces. It is very naive to think that there are two separate communities, one online, the other offline: these are the same people using different tools.

So, while we focus on mitigating radicalisation and extremist speech online both aimed to indoctrinate and emanating from radicalised youth, we need to stop searching to bridge gaps which do not exist. There are motives driving young people to engage with violence, the online space is so far more often an enabler and a facilitator of such shifts rather than a place to speak up and be heard. The only solution so far is to punish such discourse: penalise pro-ISIS tweets, criminalise girls sharing their eating disorders online, instaure wide surveillance of citizens to “prevent terrorism”, etc. are but a few of the inapt measures governments and legislatures have adopted. How long will we need to wait for them to actually take care of the people and their struggles IRL?