By Charles Kriel, Research Fellow – Data, Ethics and Trust

Last week the United Nations wrapped up two weeks of high-level general debate, talks and panels at their 73rd General Assembly. For two weeks government, private industry and civil society leaders, along with experts, activists and celebrities discussed the greatest challenges of our times — equality, poverty, climate change and peace, among a range of other topics.

World leaders guffawed at Donald Trump’s speech. The organisation UN Women presented their 2030 gender equality agenda.  And heads-of-state addressed (or clearly didn’t) this year’s theme of ”Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies”.

I was fortunate to have been invited to represent “Corsham Institute at the “New Partnerships for Countering Violent Extremist Narratives” event, hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Across what was in fact a full-blown mini-conference, Countering Violent Extremism leaders from around the globe spoke of their work, their hopes, and their programmes.

Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, is a form of counter-terrorism placing an emphasis on crafting positive narratives about the civil society. At its best, it is a community-driven social media practice, reaching out to vulnerable individuals whose need for social inclusion is so great, they might be pressured into acts of violence against their fellow citizens. CVE is media heavy and military light, and often best practiced by charities and NGOs working in concert with government organisations.

Everything from online disinformation (or fake news) through digital inclusivity has a role to play in countering extemist narratives. Just as it takes an entire village to raise a child, it also takes an entire community to prevent the online radicalisation of that child grown into an adult.

A few highlights:

  • The minister of Danish Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen, opened the sessions by reminding the audience that terrorist attacks have decreased for the third year in a row. But he also noted that although Da’esh is losing the fight in Syria and Iraq, they are thriving in “cyberspace”.

  • Lebanese National PVE Coordinator Rubina Abu Zeinab pointed out that every action must be taken to increase trust by the community.

  • While pointing out that the internal culture of big platforms regarding terrorist content had changed in the last decade, William McCants, Public Policy Manager for Google, claimed that offline communication was far more important to radicalisation than online — that online “only makes a contribution”.

  • Farah Souhail of London’s ZINC Network felt that dehumanisation was the leading issue, and that her StratCom agency emphasised the humanisation of the terrorist victim. She also noted that in Tunisia, where children have little access to traditional media but easy access to online content, their main entertainment is often waiting for the next Da’esh video, fantasising its content with their friends.

  • Erin Saltman of Facebook again emphasised the importance of offline contact. And like the Google representative before her, she shifted much of the responsibility for online distribution of radical material onto the shoulders of smaller platforms with less staff, pointing out that Facebook employed ten thousand content reviewers.

  • Alexander Guittard, Director of Governance and StratCom of M&C Saatchi made a strong point of emphasising the fluidity between online and offline media. “There is no distinction,” he claimed, pointing out that users easily move between worlds. And,

  • Alexander Ritzmann of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network noted that the private sector could be used to help the civil society, but it must be directed. He also made a call for more programmes empowering citizens and communities to speak up and express their own civil society narratives.

The depth and breadth of knowledge from the speakers was impressive. But in these sessions and others, I also found a clear divide between civil society organisations, and those charged with representing the major platforms — Facebook, Google, etc.

I found their claims around online and offline particularly disingenuous. While almost everyone agrees that offline contact is important, that is a step that often doesn’t occur until very late in the radicalisation process, when a groomer seeks to move their target to violent action. Meantime these vulnerable individuals — potential terrorists — exist within an online community of individuals with radicalised views, fed daily by online content.

Further, transferring responsibility for online radicalisation to small platforms ignores many of the facts of online extremist materials. Smaller platforms like the oft-cited do indeed find themselves hosting extreme content - violent and dehumanising. But radicalisation benefits from more seductive work, promising lands of plenty, brotherhood, and a place where a vulnerable young man might belong.

And even one hundred thousand content reviewers would be a drop-in-the-bucket for YouTube or Facebook, particularly when they’re also responsible for policing porn and spam.

Finally, Alexander Ritzmann’s points cannot be emphasised enough. Counter-terror narratives need to be delivered by members of the community, telling their own stories. They should be told by people that we trust, and shouldn’t just appear to be genuine, but be genuinely authentic.

It was an enormous honour to be invited to this year’s UN General Assembly. And while our “Countering Violent Extremism” podcast may now have expanded to the larger issues of “Data, Ethics and Trust”, our emphasis is on exploring how technology impacts communities. Understanding the workings of online media, technically, socially and psychologically, remains vital in our quest as a civil society organisation to promote the narratives of peace and democracy. Online or off.