The Blog

Less Spying, More Talking

The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, warned recently of the scale of terror threats facing the UK. As social interaction--and with it radicalisation and extremist recruitment--increasingly migrates online, the government is set to expand investigative powers for MI5. This includes using data from internet and telephone providers to increase capabilities of monitoring and tracking those at risk of committing acts of terrorism or joining groups such as ISIS. The government hopes to have a workable draft bill to legislate for these powers soon, sparking speculation of a revival of the so-called Snoopers' Charter. This will likely cost millions and use the most cutting edge technology.

In doing so, they are stepping up observation of individuals at risk of radicalisation, but possibly overlooking the cost effective methodologies that exist to extract people from the extremist milieu before they have crossed the line into criminality.

As it stands, intervention with people at risk of carrying out attacks or being recruited to terrorist organisations mostly occurs in the offline world. This misses the fact that radicalisation is a social process, and online communication is an important dimension of socialisation, especially for young people. Online discussions of extremism are also increasingly private--they are seen less on websites and forums, and more through private messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and Kik.

Recruitment through private messages is one-to-one and individualised, so it seems logical to counter this form of extremism with a similar approach. As Christina Nemr recently pointed out in an article on War on the Rocks, mass counter-terrorism campaigns are not effective because they don't address the highly personal values that drive people to participate in extremism. A one-to-one approach that makes use of these new technologies may be more suitable in preventing recruitment before it happens.

It is also a more proactive approach than current methods, which are mostly reactive. Extremist beliefs are often more pronounced online, for example the use of certain imagery in profile pictures, or the following of particular accounts or groups. The visibility of such beliefs online could lead to earlier identification of at-risk people, and allow for earlier intervention.

A recent pilot programme set out to develop a methodology for one-to-one intervention along these lines. Accounts of people in Britain at risk of joining ISIS and people in the US with far-right extremist beliefs were identified through Facebook. These accounts were passed on to former extremists from both these ideological camps who are trained as intervention providers. They then reached out to the vulnerable parties via the Facebook messaging system.

The study found that a majority of those messages that were seen elicited some sort of response, with over 60% demonstrating sustained engagement. This is over ten times higher than what would be expected from standard unsolicited email campaigns. What is key is that some of those who initially refused help from the intervention provider returned to seek it at a later stage. Personalised intervention online could then open up channels of communication that previously didn't exist, allowing for proactive prevention of radicalisation rather than reactive measures.

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