Online Radicalization: Questions we must ask

Md. Sharif Hasan
Published : 20:01, May 29, 2019 | Updated : 20:20, May 29, 2019

Md. Sharif HasanIn the current world, internet and social media have become an integral part of people’s everyday life. It has made communication convenient, connecting the different parts of the world with ease. Because the technology is now cheap and accessible; it has reached even most secluded places and many marginalized communities. But like all things, the widespread use of the internet has also brought some new challenges.
Violent extremism is without doubt one of the most critical security challenges facing the world today. But this challenge has been further heightened by the use of the social media and internet. Throughout the ages, terrorist groups have always been known for using latest technology and media tools to add the element of theater in their acts and spread fear among a greater audience. If one looks into the history of terrorism, it becomes quite clear how the newspaper and later, the telegram aided extremist groups in the past to create awareness among people about their acts of terror as well as their ideology. But with the use of internet and social media, the challenge is much more complex than before. Unlike previous technology that was available to the terrorist, the internet is extremely hard to control at source. The World Wide Web is a complex network of computers and servers all over the world. It is just like the Greek goddess Medusa; if you cut off one head (one server), two or three more appear. And with the introduction of internet in the mobile phone, the reach of internet is now wider than ever.
This new reality has a number of implications. For one, the unlike the media used in the past, the state (or anyone else for that matter) can completely filter the content that is being published online. Not only are internet and social media spreading the news of terrorist activities like wildfire, they are also spreading terrorist ideology without much of a check. Internet has significantly increased terrorists’ reach, and person to person contact is no more essential to radicalize people. Extremist groups can recruit people without being physically present at a territory; it can be easily done online. Even without contacting any extremist groups, one can simply go online and learn about extremist ideology and become self-radicalized. The recent growth of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorism phenomenon has shown that this kind of radicalization is becoming an increasingly big problem. Again, the internet has also been used to spread partial or full misinformation in order to create hatred among the audiences and attract them to extremism. Even when the motive of perpetrators is not directly linked to terrorism, outbreaks of violence can ensured through such acts. In Bangladesh, a number of violent attacks on minority groups (including the famous Ramu incident) was started because of misinformation and the misinterpretation of social media posts.
The biggest incidence of the violent extremist groups using information technology to their optimum potential is perhaps, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the ISIS. Through cyberspace presence, this group has been able to locate and radicalize vulnerable fringes of youth, making them travel from around the world to join their cause. This group managed to recruit people living in many western countries and even those belonging to more privileged sects of society, further highlighting the impact that the new media has on radicalization and violent extremism.
Mubin Shaikh, a former Taliban fighter who tried to turn Ali Shukri Amin away from extremism, shows a message from Amin capturing one of their exchanges. REUTERS/File PhotoCountries all over the world have been adapting new methods in an attempt to counter the spread of online radicalization. However, trying to stop their spread through technological means alone is quite challenging. Extremist groups use different techniques in innovating ways to exploit the internet and reach their target audiences. For instance, to avoid interception by the law enforcement agencies, extremists draft an email message and save it as a draft instead of actually sending it so that anyone with access to that email account can log in and read it. They are also very good at tailoring various online pages in an appealing manner that match the profile of a particular social group they intend to target. In recent times, they are also using mobile apps to appeal to an even greater audience. The ISIS is known to have developed an app that was tailored for children.
However, the challenge does not stop there. To prevent radicalization through cyberspace, countries mostly implement hard powers such as removing contents and restricting access to the internet. But when those kinds of actions are taken, the question of preserving freedom of speech comes in the forefront. Freedom of speech and access to information is prime requirements for a prosperous and democratic society. Where does one draw the line between freedom of speech and surveillance? And who is the right authority to draw those lines? These are hard questions to answer. Thus, developing an effective strategy to counter radicalization without impinging on citizens’ freedom of speech becomes a challenge itself.
It is not possible to control the internet and remove all kinds of radical materials from it. Nevertheless, technical measures can be taken so that the people have access to a number of alternative narratives with positive message as well. Countries, thus, should invest on those technologies and focus on creating a strategy for appealing to people through narratives that foster inter-faith, inter-racial respect and communal harmony. Besides, creating awareness among internet users about the online radicalization can also create self-monitoring system in the cyber domain. Finally, radicalization does not happen without any reason, it is usually the outward symptom of other deep-rooted problems. So, to prevent online radicalization, it is extremely important to fight those root causes.
Md. Sharif Hasan teaches International Relations at University of Rajshahi.

***The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and views of Bangla Tribune.