Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Quotable: Peter Neumann on counter-narratives and the need for scale

Tuesday, June 28th 2016

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“ISIL has been more successful and effective in exploiting the internet than any group I have seen in 17 years of researching terrorism,” said Peter Neumann in his testimony before the June 23, 2016 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Countering the Virtual Caliphate.”  Neumann is Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.  “The sophistication of some its media products, the range of platforms it uses, the way it segments according to audiences, and how it has succeeded – at times – in dominating the conversation, all this is unprecedented,” he added.  Here are more comments:

The online ecosystem of ISIL goes beyond the group itself, and it includes more than just the videos that everyone is always talking about. What gives ISIL so much punch online is also for example individual fighters, who facilitate one on one conversations.

  • It’s also what we call the cheerleaders and fanboys and wannabes -- people who aren’t actually members of ISIL, who aren’t actually in Syria, but are, essentially, freelance supporters, often based in the West. They are the ones who are giving the group its online oomph.

  • There isn’t one counter-narrative, and there isn’t one counter-narrator. Just like ISIL is segmenting its message according to audiences, we need to recognize that people are becoming attracted to ISIL for different reasons, have different interests, and are at different points along the path of radicalization.

  • What’s needed is scale. Scale, in my view, is more important than message. Even if we found the perfect message, the perfect messenger, and even if we managed to produce the perfect video, it would still be a drop in the ocean.  There still wouldn’t be oomph.  This is the internet. People are exposed to thousands of things every day.

  • Government alone will never be able to create the volume that’s needed; it’s not a credible messenger in this space; and worst of all government is by definition risk averse, which is the opposite of what you have to be online.

  • We need more data. It’s almost an embarrassment. It’s an embarrassment for everyone who works and is interested in this area. But we really don’t know what works. The initiatives that have happened have been so small scale and few in number, they haven’t generated enough data to make meaningful assertions. This must be a priority for industry, for government, and for NGOs running programs.

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