PRACTICIES webinar nº2: Radicalisation through language, tackling polarisation and hate speech


> The panel

The PRACTICIES project’s second webinar was focused on the outcomes of the work package on counter-speech and alternative narratives, and the conditions for the success or failure of alternative prevention strategies. The panel included a researcher, Valentina Dragos, of the French National Office of Aerospace Studies and Research (Office National d’Études et de Recherches Aérospatiales, ONERA), a local authority executive, Diana Schubert, from the City of Augsburg (Germany), and a practitioner, Robert Örell from the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) and Director of EXIT USA.

> Understanding the communication processes of radical discourse

Valentina Dragos explained that her research as part of the PRACTICIES project consisted in “understanding the communication processes that promote or limit the spread of radical discourse.” In other words, “what is happening in the cyberspace and how does it support radicalisation processes?”
ONERA’s research examined online propaganda as well as its dynamics, i.e. how people interact with the content to keep it “alive”. Valentina Dragos noted that while a few years ago, propaganda was based on violent messages, it has now shifted to a milder and more attractive ‘offer’. “Nowadays, the propaganda targets women and how they can create a family. It offers people to build something, to become part of a community and fight for something together.” This shift, which is noticeable in particular in Islamist propaganda, makes it even more dangerous because it draws a larger audience.

> Examining the underlying processes of extremist discourses to improve prevention

Studying and understanding the underlying processes of extremist discourse and communication is a meticulous work that helps improve radicalisation prevention strategies. It allows for the identification of the propaganda’s most common features of and the most used channels and sources. It also enables to detect shifts in the narratives and how audiences react to them. Furthermore, monitoring and controlling extremist contents improves the authorities’ ability to respond, notably by removing such contents (while being obviously careful to respect freedom of speech).
Valentina Dragos also pointed out some gaps that need to be filled, whether they are technical (in particular, the methods for analysing online content and the use of proper databases), methodological (defining what we want to research and how we want to do it) and legal and society-related (question of the legality of contents other than hate speech, for instance).

> The “huge challenge” of polarisation for local authorities

Speaking on behalf of the Bavarian city of Augsburg (300,000 inhabitants), Diana Schubert focused on the extreme right as an example of radical discourse and how it impacts life in a city such as Augsburg, where 50% of the population is of migrant origin. Although it is “quite difficult” to measure the impact of radical discourse on society, “there is a clear indicator, which is the number of members of the city council that are from far-right parties,” she said. In Augsburg, the number of councillors from the far-right party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland / Alternative for Germany) has gone up from one to four after the March 2020 local elections. “This is a clear indicator that Augsburg is a fertile soil for radicalism. Polarisation is a huge challenge. How can we overcome this polarisation, this hate that is destroying social cohesion in Augsburg?”

> Creating spaces for people to get to know each other

Diana Schubert believes that our fear of people we don’t know fuels polarisation, and that local authorities can play a role in curbing it by “institutionally creating places and possibilities for people to meet, both in the real world and online, and to get to know each other.”
One strategy implemented in Augsburg is the creation of alternative discourse communication campaigns. The city was thus a partner in the Efus-led Local Voices (Local communication strategies to prevent extremism) project (June 2017 – December 2018), whose objective was to design local online communications campaigns. Augsburg is also taking part in the on-going, Efus-led LOUD (Local Young Leaders for Inclusion) project (January 2019 – January 2021), which seeks to foster inclusive environments for young people in order to prevent them from drifting into intolerance and extremism.
“Polarisation is really a very important topic for us. We are not there yet. There is a tiny light at the end of the tunnel, but a lot remains to be done and, as always, it depends in part on human and financial resources,” she concluded.

> In-group and out-group

Robert Örell from RAN then spoke about the need to understand radicalisation processes and the ideologies that feed them. “The process relies on this idea of in-group and out-group,” he said, referring to the “us and them” mentality. “People who join these groups are looking for a sense of community, of power, the feeling that they can create a change not only for themselves but for the whole of society,” he said.
He also noted there are lone wolves, such as the far-right extremists behind the terrorist attacks in Norway (July 2011) and Christchurch in New Zealand (March 2019). They usually refer to other loners in their manifestos and many find inspiration in two books, The Turner Diaries (1978) and Hunter (1989) (both by American author William Luther Pierce, a.k.a. Andrew McDonald), which make an interesting read for people who seek to understand how radicalisation processes unravel.
How to prevent such phenomena and rehabilitate extremists? Robert Örell spoke about the work carried out by Exit Sweden with those called “formers”, i.e. who have turned away from radicalism. “What creates change? It is important to refrain from judging them when we first meet them,” he said. “It is also important to establish an informal kind of dialogue, and also to find common interests in order to connect with these people.”

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