Western governments over the past two years have launched various initiatives to try to counter IS messaging. (Image source: Wikipedia) Photograph:( Others )
Challenging online jihadist propaganda with counterarguments or shutting down extremist websites and social media accounts have little impact, and distract from the real threat, according to experts.
As the Islamic State group (IS) spread across parts of Iraq and Syria, it ramped up its outreach to youths.
Videos shared online depicting executions and others touting the creation of a caliphate became powerful recruiting tools, drawing hundreds of Western youths to the Middle East to join IS.
Experts who met this week in Quebec City to find ways to combat this threat agreed that IS has used online propaganda to extend the conflict zone like no other.
Western governments over the past two years have launched various initiatives to try to counter IS messaging.
"We're doing counterpropaganda. The political fight begins with words. Our counterarguments count on youth being critical thinkers," Juliette Meadel, French Secretary of State for victims, told AFP.
Days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, the French government launched a website (stop-djihadisme.gouv.fr) and a few months later accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
The initiative aimed "to present arguments against extremism for youth who may be drawn to jihadist sites," said Meadel.
The American, British and Canadian governments have taken similar measures, and with the help of major Internet firms such as Twitter took down some 235,000 extremist accounts in the first six months.
But instead of quashing extremism, this only emboldened them.
"Censorship doesnt work," said Google's global head of international relations, Ross LaJeunesse. "You don't really change someone's heart and mind by just taking down what they said (in an online post). What you do is that you drive that underground."
"Instead we want to engage... and change their mind," he said.
In fact, "suspending Twitter accounts was seen as a legitimation, even as Shahada (the profession of Islamic faith), or martyrdom in Islam," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
The researcher spends his days dissecting IS communications on the Telegram secure messaging network favored by jihadists. He follows 80 discussion groups and sees between 50 to 150 messages posted by extremists each day, and the flow is incessant.
"You can't just focus on the way media are being used and forget about the Iraq invasion in 2003, about Shia-Sunni conflicts and others complex issues," he said.
It's useless to try to gain ground on the ideological front by countering jihadist propaganda, which is run "by kids who grew up in the West and have perfectly mastered these online communication tools," he said.
Heading up a UNESCO initiative to compile any and all research on the subject, Toulouse University professor Seraphin Alava adds: "There is no evidence of a direct link between radicalization of youth and online propaganda."
We must accept that "some young people see a role for themselves in the world that IS offers," said Oslo University researcher Cristina Archetti.
"It's unrealistic to think that you can de-radicalize (youth) with messages on the Internet. You have to address the real issues those youths face," said Amarasingam.
"If we want to rid the Internet of jihadist propaganda, we must act in real life," agreed Meadel.
It is therefore necessary to focus on "education, supporting early childhood, promoting integration and inclusion, and provide job opportunities," she said.