A new report from the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence is yet another indication that the Internet is not the main culprit for society's woes. The report, "Countering Online Radicalization: A Strategy for Action," debunked the myth that the Internet is a major recruiting and training tool for extremists and would-be terrorists. The report focused primarily on the United Kingdom but has implications for the United States and elsewhere.
The authors found "little evidence to support the contention that the internet plays a dominant role in the process of radicalization."
That's not to say that extremists don't ever use websites to reinforce their messages but that "self-radicalization and self-recruitment via the internet with little or no relation to the outside world rarely happens, and there is no reason to suppose that this situation will change in the near future."
It also found that "much of the jihadist web presence was about 'preaching to the choir'" and that "it is largely ineffective when it comes to drawing in new recruits."
After examining a variety of ways to block, filter or remove offensive sites, the report found that "many of the filtering technologies that are currently in use are either too crude or too expensive to operate" and that they fail to deal with the conversational part of the internet." Even though it may be possible to "remove, filter or hide content that is available from relatively static websites," such efforts will be largely ineffective when it comes to "chat rooms, instant messaging, virtual worlds and networking sites." Like the rest of us, it seems as if terrorists have discovered Web 2.0.
And the costs associated with efforts to ferret out such sites are more than just financial. There is the issue of false positives and that the concern that "blacklists would come to serve as virtual guides to all the material the government doesn't want you to see."
And, of course, there is the issue of creating a false sense of security by thinking that stamping out radical sites will in any way stop terrorism or interrupt the work of the networks which are mostly "real-world social relationships." Any attempt to remove all potentially radicalizing content from the internet "would generate social and political costs that would far outweigh the benefits that might be gained from having certain materials removed, especially in the context of a liberal democracy."
The report advocates empowering online communities to self-regulate and enforce their own community standards and, to enhance media literacy to "improve young people's capacity to deal with extremist internet content critically."
Because of my work with Internet safety -- another widely misunderstood issue -- I found this report particularly interesting. Just as with terrorism, there are many in politics and the media who want to blame the Internet for problems that stem mostly from the real world. The implication that pedophiles rely heavily on the Internet to find and groom their victims is another widespread myth, considering that the vast majority of child-sexual assault victims know the perpetrator in the real world. As with terrorist websites, it's easy to imagine incredible danger, but there is little evidence to back it up. And there are other parallels, including the observation that education and media literacy will go a long way towards solving the problems that do exist.
I'm also struck by the report's reluctance to rely on technological solutions to keep us safe. I served on the Harvard Berkman Center's Internet Safety Technical Task Force which, like this British study, came to the conclusion that technological tools -- while promising -- are not the best first-line of defense against a problem that has its roots in the real -offline-world.
By Larry Magid