Understanding the Role of Social Media is Key to Challenging Extremists

The ease of communication and information-sharing that makes websites such as Facebook and Twitter so useful for keeping in touch with friends and promoting social events makes the dissemination of extreme material much easier than in the past.

The report 'Challenging extremists: practical frameworks for our universities', co-written by myself and released yesterday by Student Rights and the Henry Jackson Society, highlights the continuing role that universities unwittingly play in providing a forum for radicalisation.

By focusing on the use of social media by both students and those extremists who attempt to target them, it also shows that the common view that campuses and the internet should be treated as separate spaces where radicalisation can occur is a dangerous fallacy.

The ease of communication and information-sharing that makes websites such as Facebook and Twitter so useful for keeping in touch with friends and promoting social events makes the dissemination of extreme material much easier than in the past.

The fact that a Facebook page allows all members of a social group to gather in one virtual space and be notified when new material is shared provides extremists with the ability to instantly reach large numbers with ease.

At one London university, one individual was able to use this medium to post video of a senior Al-Qaeda figure, Anwar Al-Awlaki, telling those students who viewed it that that they shouldn't "be waiting on the sidelines when all this [current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan] is happening".

They were also able to share a video message from an individual listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and described as a recruiter and propagandist for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group proscribed by the UK government as a terrorist organisation.

Claiming then that "the internet played a far greater role than universities" and that the Prevent strategy focus on campuses had been "disproportionate", as the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report into the roots of radicalisation did, misunderstands the way in which internet use permeates other sectors that are at risk.

It also fails to appreciate that in some cases, students have been receptive to this material, and that campuses can still be a place in which extremists can find profitable ground to spread their ideas. While many students would not act on these sentiments, the case of Roshonara Choudhry, who attempted to assassinate Stephen Timms MP in 2008 shows that this can have devastating consequences.

At one institution, London South Bank University (LSBU), video and audio recordings of Al-Awlaki were shared by the administrators who ran the Facebook page. In one case a student asked for more material featuring the cleric, who was killed in a US drone attack last September, and was provided with it by the LSBU Facebook administrator. During our research we also found that in many cases the more extreme videos had been commented on favourably by students.

Furthermore, we found large amounts of material shared by individual students which was often sourced from the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Despite the application of the National Union of Students 'No Platform' policy, speakers from the organisation were also able to address students on campus on three separate occasions.

The large amounts of extremist material catalogued in the report demonstrates then that the issue of campus radicalisation is not one which should be brushed under the carpet, and any report which examines it should not be dismissed as 'sensationalist'. Instead, there should be more attention paid to how government, universities and students themselves can work together to challenge those who would target our education institutions.

There is no doubt that further research is required to determine the links between campuses and radicalisation, but stakeholders can also have an effect by effectively challenging extremist individuals and groups when they are given a platform on campuses, as well as by enforcing already existing regulations such as the 'No Platform' policy.

We also feel that they can utilise the findings of this report, particularly the case studies of unlawful speech, activity and association, to work with students to identify when potentially illegal material is shared via the social media of university societies.

Creating a civic intolerance of such behaviour, as has been done with the views of the BNP and the EDL, is also important and should highlight the similarities of the intolerance of both Islamism and the Far-Right. If this leads to more students feeling that they are able to come forward and voice their concerns about certain material, as we believe it will, then this report will have been a success.

Yesterday's report detailed the continued penetration of Islamist-inspired activism onto campuses, as well as the dissemination of truly dangerous material featuring well known violent extremists and UN sanctioned terrorists. It is time for a new approach to this issue, one that is collaborative, student-led and challenges extremists whilst protecting freedom of expression. More than anything it is time to stop denying that there is a problem.


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