Calls to curb ISIS' social media reach

Calls to curb ISIS' social media reach
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (third from left) with several symposium participants at the East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration – the only one open to the media.

Videos on YouTube of a 10- year-old boy executing a captive, and Facebook and Twitter posts praising the brutal methods of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group in recent months have attracted millions of viewers and made headlines.

It was thus no surprise that with terrorists latching on to social media to woo recruits, several participants at a regional meeting on countering terrorism called for more to be done to curb ISIS' freedom online and restrict its reach.

But Mr Richard Stengel, United States Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, told the first panel at the East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration - the only one open to the media - that it was not just the job of governments to shut these views out.

Extreme views are more effectively fought when individuals actively challenge them, he said, calling on communities and people to speak out against offensive content and pressure social media companies to take them down.

"Social media companies don't want to hear from the US government. They want to hear from individuals," he said. They also do not want "their environment polluted by this hateful, death-embracing vision".

"That's against everything that they stand for," he said.

Symposium convener Rohan Gunaratna said much of extremist activity online takes place on platforms hosted in the US, and asked why the country had yet to clamp down on this. "You must address this challenge, because it is these platforms that are currently polluting the minds of our youth," he said. "Unless we address this challenge, every day there will be new sympathisers and supporters of terrorist groups."

Observers have also cited one issue exploited by radicals - how free speech in Western societies has given rise to anti-Islamic sentiment in recent years.

But Mr Stengel, a former journalist and editor, made the point that the Internet is not a space for the government to wade into, and sought to put ISIS' influence on social media in perspective.

"The number of cat videos versus the number of Daesh videos is an exponentially larger number. People on the Internet are much more interested in cats than they are interested in Daesh," he said to laughter, referring to ISIS by the acronym of its Arabic name, which militants hate. Some officials have used the term to refer to ISIS, to stress that there is nothing Islamic or state-like about it.

"It's up to all of us to enlist the credible voices of real people out there, who are rejecting what Daesh is doing online," he added.

Participant Daisy Khan of non-profit group Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality was also concerned about the coverage ISIS' brutality has received in the mass media.

"This is not just about freedom of expression and freedom of speech. We are at a time of war," she said. "What can we do to ask the media to at least black out the images and say, we will not be used as a platform to further the propaganda of terrorists?" Mr Stengel said the media had displayed restraint by refusing to publish certain videos or images.

The most effective message to counter ISIS, he felt, was not just saying their message was not in line with Islam, but also challenging their propaganda and showing that life in areas they control is far from the utopia they paint it as.

"The caliphate is a place where there's no electricity, where there's no food, where there's suffering," he added.

This article was first published on April 17, 2015.
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