Negative government measures to counter online radicalisation are crude, costly and counter-productive, says a report released yesterday - if it's serious about the issue, it needs to harness the positive.
Present measures designed to deny access to radical content on the web or restrict its availability are crude, costly and counter-productive, according to Countering Online Radicalisation. It submits that the way ahead is in positive measures which capitalise on the immense well of goodwill amongst online communities, and in targeting resources widely rather than into a small number of high profile projects.
The report follows a year of research and consultation with government and academics by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). The process kicked off almost 14 months ago, with an address by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who declared that the internet was no longer a "no-go area for government and the law".
Whether the conclusions are quite what she had in mind is another matter. The report was introduced to a meeting at the Maugham Library, Kings College, by Mike Whine of the Community Security Trust. He likened the process of radicalisation to a conveyor belt, with terrorist activity as one possible end result.
"Fifty thousand websites are reported as being linked to Islamic radicalisation – although we need to remember that the problem this report sets out to address goes much wider," he said. "Far right radicalisation may also prove to be an issue in the years ahead."
The report’s authors, Tim Stevens and Dr Peter Neumann, then ran through the main options available to government. Tim Stevens attacked negative measures, broadly defined as measures designed to restrict access, and including removal (takedown), filtering and hiding of radical sites. He put forward a number of reasons why this approach was unlikely to work and in the end was doomed to be counter-productive.
Negative measures, he said, were "easy to circumvent, often lead to a public backlash, fail to address issues of dynamic content and, in the end, can actually drive the radicalisation they are designed to thwart".
By contrast, Peter Nuemann outlined a four-point plan of positive measures that government should consider undertaking now. These include:
- Deterring producers: the selective use of takedowns in conjunction with prosecutions would signal that individuals engaged in online extremism were not beyond the law
- Empowering online communities: the creation of an internet users' panel to strengthen reporting mechanisms and complaints procedures would enable individual voices to be heard
- Reducing the appeal: more attention must be paid to media literacy and a comprehensive approach in this area is needed
- Promoting positive messages: the establishment of an independent start-up fund would provide seed money for grassroots online projects aimed at countering extremism.
All well and good, but is the government listening? The report’s authors claimed to have been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Whitehall officials were interested in what they had to say and were buying in to their ideas – although some scepticism was expressed in the question and answer session by a representative from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in respect of the internet user panel.
But what about Wacky Jacqui and Culture Secretary Andy Burnham? Over the last year, both have become enthusiasts for more active government intervention on the internet. Their speeches suggest a preference for high profile government-inspired projects – which are the exact antithesis of what this report suggests. Instead, the expert view seems to be: make use of support that exists; provide a little seed money to lots of individual initiatives; empower rather than control.
Is this a message that government is capable of hearing? Only time will tell. ®