UN: "Facts and evidence", not "panic and fearmongering", required in online radicalisation debate

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"Facts and evidence", not "panic and fearmongering", required in online radicalisation debate
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A global review of recent research on the "online violent radicalisation" of young people has found that there is a "scarcity" of empirical enquiries and the issue "has yet to attract a critical mass of studies for the research to be credible in its conclusions and recommendations."

See: UNESCO: Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media – Mapping the Research (November 2017, pdf)

This underlines the need for "policy that is constructed on the basis of facts and evidence, and not founded on hunches – or driven by panic and fearmongering," says the report's authors.

The review was carried out by UNESCO and examines research undertaken across the globe, primarily between 2012 and 2016, "about the assumed roles played by social media in violent radicalization processes, especially when they affect youth and women."

The report states:

"Currently, there is some evidence for correlation between exposure to extremist propaganda and recruitment and the expression of extremist attitudes and increased risk for violent radicalization among youth, particularly in the case of extreme right wing groups.. However, the exact roles and processes via which Internet and social media contribute to the radicalization process need to be further explored... there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that there is a causal relationship between online extremist propaganda or recruitment via Internet and social media and the violent radicalization of young people." [emphasis added]

The report makes clear that there is little evidence to demonstrate necessity of the new and extraordinary legal measures currently being promoted and implemented by the EU, its Member States and other countries around the world, for example to try to curb the publication of terrorist propaganda on social media platforms.

It was reported recently that the European Commission "is demanding social media platforms share illegal content with police amid broader threats of imposing EU-wide legislation to enforce the takedown of such material," and that the Home Affairs Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, "said removals should not take more than two hours."

Germany's new law online hate speech law has led to the deletion of posts and blocking of accounts of various Twitter users - from members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the satirical magazine Titanic, that published parodies of the AfD's anti-Muslim comments. Some politicians are already calling for the law to be abolished.

A fundamental problem with such measures is the power they give to private companies to decide what can and cannot be said online. As a recent editorial in Politico remarked:

"As strong as the case may be for expunging repugnant material, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to decide what social media posts are actually illegal, especially when the definition for illegality can vary between countries.


Facebook, Google and Twitter may have more technical prowess and manpower dedicated to dealing with the problem. But these companies — whose quarterly earnings and investors’ demands often run counter to governments’ content policing plans — should not be the ones having to decide what can be allowed through digital safety nets."

That is supposed to be the job of democratically-representative officials and a transparent and accountable judicial system.

These problems are highlighted in the foreword to the UNESCO report:

"In parallel to the increased attention to online “incitement to extremism and violence”, attempts to prevent this phenomenon have created challenges for freedom of expression. These range from indiscriminate blocking, censorship over-reach (affecting both journalists and bloggers), and privacy intrusions – right through to the suppression or instrumentalisation of media at the expense of independent credibility)."

There is thus a need for caution:

"The results of the study reveal that there is a scarcity of findings for enhancing our understanding about Internet and expressions of violent extremism. There is thus an absence of knowledge that could feed evidence-based policy for preventing and countering the phenomenon.


It may take time until we get more credible and comprehensive, even if not definitive, research that can complement these international instruments [such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and inform our policy development and practice. But at least we do not stand empty-handed in approaching the complexity of freedom of expression and online incitement to violent extremism."

See: UNESCO: Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media – Mapping the Research (November 2017, pdf)

Further reading

Policing the internet: how Europol takes action against undesirable content online (pdf) by Kilian Veith, July 2017

Policing the internet: from terrorism and extremism to “content used by traffickers to attract migrants and refugees”(pdf) by Chris Jones, March 2016

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