There is growing concern about the role of social media in ‘radicalising’ your people. But the government’s response to this phenomenon is contradictory and likely to prove ineffective. Here’s why we need a more thoughtful approach.
The government appears to be increasingly concerned about the role of social media in the ‘radicalisation’ of young people. Stories about young jihadis who travel to Syria to join ISIS, or those who commit acts of terror at home, frequently make great play of the role of the internet in exposing them to ‘extremist ideologies’.
Yet the government’s educational strategy seems strangely contradictory. On the one hand, its anti-radicalisation programme Prevent includes ‘suspicion of mainstream media’ as one of a list of tell-tale signs of emerging extremism in young people. Yet on the other hand, its fears of online radicalisation have prompted a review of internet provision in schools, with a view to restricting and monitoring students’ access. The idea that young people might be encouraged to take a critical approach to media doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
This story of online radicalisation makes an interesting contrast with the dewy-eyed narratives of digital liberation promoted by some internet enthusiasts. The idea that the Arab spring of 2011 was a ‘Facebook revolution’ – that it was somehow caused by young people’s growing access to social media – has been correctly challenged. Social media evangelists have often claimed that networked media possess an inherently democratic potential. Yet such claims clearly do not stand up in light of the apparent success of profoundly anti-democratic groups such as ISIS in promoting their ideas online.
However, the government’s proposals are quite incoherent. Would restricting children’s access to computers in schools really make any difference? If you were planning a trip to Syria to join ISIS, you could easily find everything you need on your mobile phone – and you would probably have the good sense not to check out ISIS videos on the computers in the school library. On the other hand, if suspicion of media is seen as a problem, then how are young people to respond in a critical way to the kinds of material they will inevitably encounter – not least to online propaganda?
Framing the issue as (yet another) aspect of ‘online safety’ – as many child-protection advocates do – is quite simplistic. It reflects a view of young people as passive victims of evil manipulation, with the agents of radicalisation as somehow equivalent to paedophiles.
This approach seems to misunderstand both the politics and the ideology of groups such as ISIS. The strategy of such groups is precisely designed to generate backlash – and in that respect, it has things in common with some of the ultra-left movements of earlier decades. Spectacular terrorist outrages result in greater repression targeted at all Muslims, and this in turn justifies the claim that Western governments are engaged in a war against Islam as a whole. Meanwhile, governments try to deny the possibility that their own foreign policies might have anything whatsoever to do with the rise of radical Islam.
When young Muslims look at how they are represented in mainstream media, it is bound to seem as though there is a systematic process of demonization and vilification going on. This is arguably the case, not just in the tabloid press, but in so-called ‘quality’ media as well: the latest episodes of Silent Witness would be a case in point. Research on media content – such as the work of Elizabeth Poole, Peter Morey and Amina Jaquin, and Julian Petley – is somewhat more nuanced in its approach, although it reinforces the claim that Muslims are widely misrepresented. In fact, there’s quite a lot to justify a generalized suspicion of media.
The dominant narrative about ‘radicalisation’ seems to perceive it as a process of brainwashing. Yet generations of media research suggest that the ideological role of media is much more complex than this. The influence of media depends on how far the media speak to experiences and inclinations that are already in place. Representations only make sense to people if they confirm their existing perceptions of the world, at least to some extent, or if they articulate things that people already ‘know’ on some level. The message of jihadi propaganda – that ‘the West’ is somehow seeking to eradicate Islam – is unfortunately much too plausible.
Likewise, the process of ‘radicalisation’ is a more complex matter than much of the popular commentary suggests. Again, it seems to imply a view of young people as passive victims rather than social actors: ‘radicalisation’ is something that is done to them by others, rather than something they actively participate in themselves.
One starting point here would be to look more closely at the social backgrounds and experiences of those who become radicalised. Some commentators suggest that alienation and social isolation are key predictors of radicalisation – a theory that has much in common with old-style sociological theories of deviance and gang membership. Yet in fact, it would appear that many adherents of groups like ISIS are well-educated and affluent: it is no accident that universities are key recruiting grounds. Either way, a psychological approach, which tends to pathologise the personal inadequacies of extremists, is unlikely to get us very far in understanding them.
When it comes to social media, our research (conducted in the late 2000s) found that the internet was relatively ineffective in promoting civic and political activity among young people. This is partly because it is a ‘pull’ medium rather than a ‘push’ medium: people have to actively seek out content, and for this reason the medium is much more effective in reaching those who are already politically engaged. For activists of all kinds, the internet can be a very effective political tool; but as a means of reaching those who are disengaged from politics, it is likely to be much less effective than other media.
Yet things may be changing. The possibility of viral distribution via sharing and recommendation – so much celebrated by enthusiasts – may be changing the direction of flow. And, like pornography, violent propaganda may still offer the thrill of forbidden fruit.
One thing is certain: an educational strategy that is based on censorship and on closing down discussion of such issues is bound to be ineffective – and may well prove counter-productive. The government’s Prevent strategy has been widely criticized for alienating young Muslims, rather than protecting them: it is seen by many as part of their wider demonization in society (and indeed the media) at large.
An alternative approach, based on trust and respect, and on a broader, global conception of citizenship, seems a long way off. When it comes to media, there is clearly a need for all young people to learn how to analyse representation and propaganda in all their forms. There is undoubtedly a difference between reasonable suspicion and unfounded paranoia. But a healthy critical suspicion of media should surely be a basic educational entitlement, not a sign of something to fear and suppress.