“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we do not like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
These are the words of the late Bertrand Russel in an interview for the BBC in 1959, as a response to what advice he would like to give to future generations. Today, these two pieces of advice feel more relevant than ever.
Social media has produced clusters of enclaves, where truth and fact are conspicuously absent and where the hatred that Russel described as foolish, prospers. But what is at the root of this? Notions of not fitting in? Overwhelming emotions? A desire to become a part of something else? To be something that is feared, morally right or powerful?
Subscribing to a worldview that puts the individual at the centre of a historic and messianic battle between “us” and “them” might feel empowering. It turns the individual into a hero or heroine that fights for the greater good, whilst also enjoying the recognition that for him or her feels deserved.
Hate and conflict spreads easily online and through media
The notion that changes in individual or group values and behaviours can be a result of messages or ideologies that spread on social media, subscribes to the theory of contagion.
This theory proposes that the aim of terrorism goes far beyond killing and, that its ultimate goal, is to create a theatre with a message. Because when a mind is occupied by panic, fascination or adrenaline, it becomes significantly harder to heed Russel’s intellectual advice regarding loyalty to truth and facts.
Hence, the relationship between terrorism and media is symbiotic. But, it is far from the kind of symbiosis that occurs between a mushroom and a tree, which brings out the best in both parts and is positive for the environment; instead, it is a contaminated relationship that brings out the worst in journalism and social media. This negative symbiosis can be illustrated by oversimplified and rushed judgments, condemnations and resulting polarization that, in the end, favour the interests of terrorists.
So, if media and online participators are either purposely or unwittingly assisting the advocates for hate, conflict, terror and polarization, it leads to the question of what kind of approaches would work as a counterweight in the public discussion. One approach would be promoting alternative narratives, which would further increase their full potential if the following dimensions were addressed:
- Narratives that reflect issues that genuinely concern the community
- Engaging key members of civil society
- Rewarding alternative behaviour and means of participation and engagement
Another line of action that might be constructive would be to dedicate efforts to counter false and hateful narratives, one way to do would be by introducing media interpretation courses and tools which foster critical thinking in curricula. It would certainly please Mr. Russel and, perhaps, it would be more difficult to indoctrinate people that are equipped with critical thinking abilities.
Both actions offline and a digital counterinsurgency is needed
A comprehensive strategy that counters the pull effects of violent extremist groups, should include both soft and hard approaches to the overall scheme. Yet, any effort in this line should also make an extremely careful and detailed analysis of the action plan, as to not infringe on freedom of speech or of association.
In practical terms, this strategy would mean closing down pages and accounts of individuals or groups who are recruiting or indoctrinating youth for violent extremist groups. However, prominent social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have so far been rather reluctant to act in this direction. According to experts, what we can see on public and semi-public social media is only the tip of the iceberg – much more dangerous activities occur on instant message applications such as WhatsApp, Kik, Telegram, Wicker and Zello.
The importance of joint efforts on soft approaches has been internationally recognized, as we can see in the United Nations Resolution 2250; however, the international community has yet to agree upon basic guidelines and clear strategies to cooperate in the launch of a digital counterinsurgency. Perhaps, this is due to the traditionally lawless character of the internet, but only time will tell whether this online anarchy is sustainable or not. By Johannes Jauhiainen