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Activists using social media to fight jihadists

MONTREAL — A Montreal-based human rights think-tank wants to fight jihadist groups on their own online turf, saying it’s time to push back against the propaganda.

Kyle Matthews, who heads Concordia University’s Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab, says the use of social media by groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to lure young people and promote its cause goes largely unchecked.

Groups like ISIL are evidence of the increasing convergence between new technology, atrocities and extremist factions, said Matthews.

“ISIS has become like a genocidal force where it exists and it tends to squash all diversity and annihilate anyone who is different,” he said in a recent interview.

“Tied to that, we have cases in Canada where individuals are being radicalized online, targeted on social media much like online sexual predators.”

The lab was introduced this year and is part of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, where Matthews is deputy director.

Montreal has been the focus of much scrutiny after the recent arrest of 10 youths suspected of wanting to join jihadist groups in the Middle East. Their passports were confiscated, although no charges were laid.

A local junior college attended by some of those youths noted it was powerless to stop recruitment that largely takes place online.

That followed the disappearance in January of several young Quebecers who are believed to have fled to Turkey to eventually join jihadist organizations in the Middle East. Some are thought to have attended the same school.

In Quebec, the province is set to introduce anti-radicalization measures in the coming weeks, while the City of Montreal has said it plans to open an anti-radicalization centre.

While some people advocate closing down social media accounts and outing jihadist cheerleaders, Matthews said responding to such propaganda and tackling the ideology is equally important.

“They’re creating a narrative that kind of makes the ISIS fighter look like the Che Guevara of 2015,” Matthews said.

The propaganda videos are professionally produced. Groups like ISIL are also prolific, with thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts that constantly recruit and target disaffected youth in the West. There have been reports about their use of apps and other programs, like the Russian equivalent of Facebook, to bypass western intelligence.

Jihadists have also demonstrated a long reach: an ISIL audio recording in mid-May, purportedly from its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was translated into several languages and shared via some 46,000 Twitter accounts linked to the group.

With so much jihadist content available, Matthews said governments and organizations worldwide are struggling to keep up.

“The response is so slow and what I keep telling people, the government can’t do this stuff: bureaucrats are not creative, they don’t understand how social media works,” Matthews said. 

“The ideas are where we have to engage if we want to prevent this from getting any worse.”

Matthews and his team will present ways to deal with digital jihadism at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Germany in June.

The best line of attack, he believes, may lie in a diverse group of untapped sources such as creative filmmakers, tech firms and Muslims who understand the situation and can provide a counterpoint.

“They (ISIL) have got an entire social media infrastructure that’s laid out and they’re doing it in multiple languages and I don’t see any equivalent response,” Matthews said.

Programs combating extremism are rare. One program launched in February is called Extreme Dialogue, an educational tool that features testimonial videos and resources to get teens to question views being peddled to them.

Among the participants is Christianne Boudreau, a Calgary mother whose 22-year-old son, Damian Clairmont, was killed last year while fighting with jihadists in Syria.

She said many youths sympathize with radical groups because they find a sense of belonging and family online.

“They’re being told that all the propaganda (in western media) is all lies — my son was told the same thing,” Boudreau said, adding many Canadian kids likely sympathize with the movement but have not yet acted upon their feelings.

Boudreau also works with families touched by radicalization and notes resources are scarce.

“Until we start bonding together and building community resilience and creating those outreach points for people, it’s going to be very difficult to slow this down,” she said.


Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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