07/06/2013 12:28 BST | Updated 06/08/2013 06:12 BST

Online Radicalisation: Beyond Extremist 'Whack-a-Mole'


The recent horrific attacks in both Boston and Woolwich have reignited calls for tighter controls on the internet presence of extremists and their sympathisers. Culture Secretary Maria Miller is summoning the leading technology companies to a meeting in two weeks to order the firms to block site which promote terrorism. Last week Theresa May also called for further regulation; referencing initial advances made in purging the internet of no less than 5,500 'terrorist' messages. While the Ministers are correct in suggesting there may be 'no doubt that people are able to watch things through the internet which can lead to radicalisation', focusing squarely on measures designed to restrict the supply of violent extremist materials online remains a short-sighted strategic response.

We all know that there's a lot of content on the internet, but when government s are discussing removing extremist materials as if that were a simple exercise - and even holding up the removal of a few thousand pieces of data as success - it's worth reiterating just how vast the space they seek to control is. Every minute over 571 new websites are created, Facebook users share over 600,000 pieces of data and over 48 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube. Every minute.

In a space this vast it is inevitable that some of that content will be undesirable, and a fraction of it will incite violence and even terrorism. Attempts to take down this data have met with limited success for this very reason. Once one account is deleted, two brand new ones spring up in its place. In January of this year, al-Shabaab, a Somali Jihadist organisation which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda (which Woolwich suspect Michael Adebolajo allegedly attempted to join) had its Twitter account suspended. Within hours it had simply added a '1' to the end of its original name, recreated the account and has proceeded to tweet to this today.

Much of the content that may 'lead to radicalisation' - as the Home Secretary suggests - is also not illegal. While utterances of the deceased radical cleric and 'jihadist rock star' Anwar al-Awlaki continue to inspire new generations of self-radicalised terrorists on YouTube (including the Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev), these may fall short of violating any terms and conditions of private sector industries, and are therefore not liable for removal.

Extremist content located online provides a rich stream of data to understand the dynamics of extremist groups and the attitudes and beliefs of their sympathisers. When a website is removed, users will waste little time reforming in another darker corner of the web, however it can take researchers and even security services time to locate these spaces. Knowing where those who we wish to counter are interacting is a most useful information gathering tool in an area which is so often information light; It should not be thrown away unless absolutely necessary.

If evidence suggests that a focus on limiting the supply of extremist content is inadequate and undesirable then what options remain, particularly in the aftermath of events like Woolwich and Boston? A more sustainable response lies in countering violent extremist adversaries in the battle for hearts and minds. Unlike many other Governments grappling with the online threats, the UK already has the tools at its disposal to engage in the 'virtual market place of ideas' through its Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), a dedicated strategic communications unit established it established in 2007 to counter al-Qaeda propaganda.

Government must place greater emphasis on using the tools at its disposal to undermine the online communications of extremists, with a particular focus on countering accusations and misinformation spread online about its own policies and actions (both domestic and foreign). Yet, government will not always best placed on the front line in this war of ideas, and helping credible counter-voices go digital to compete for audience-share with extremist messengers is therefore crucial. A greater focus needs to be placed on up-skilling these credible voices; such as former extremists, community leaders and survivors of violent extremism.

Networks such as the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network, which is run by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in conjunction with Google Ideas and other private sector partners, bring together formers and survivors of violent extremism from around the world to tackle extremism act as a pre-existing source of credible actors which government could leverage. The challenge now lies in bringing these messengers together with private-sector expertise, providing training and support for the creation of compelling counter-narratives while using advertising and marketing techniques to ensure these messages reach the right audiences, those who are accessing or attempting to access extremist content.

These messages could take multiple forms; Direct refutation of the religious teachings put forward, survivors highlighting the human cost violence or former extremists undermining the appeal of joining extremist groups by discussing their grim reality. More subtle counter-narratives are also possible, with former extremists (who better?) posing as new recruits in forums and probing the arguments put forward by extremists of all ilks for their weakness, attempting to sow seeds of doubt into the minds of would be extremists thinking of becoming more involved.

There is no shortage of innovative ways government and others can fight the battle of ideas online, but in order to win this battle government must take to the field in a serious way. When Miller gets the major online players in one room in two weeks time, there must be more on the agenda than take-downs. Unless we see an increased focus on the creative design of positive counter-messages to directly engage with extremist narratives online, the government will find itself in a largely fruitless game of extremist whack-a-mole, expending a lot of effort with little to show.