Terrorists will use any means at their disposal to spread their ideology, especially when targeting vulnerable youth. However, young people themselves are in a special position to combat terrorist radicalization and recruitment and connect with their peers to challenge the appeal of terrorist narratives. That is why the State Department has supported youth-focused and youth-driven initiatives such as the Peer to Peer (P2P): Facebook Global Digital Challenge, which helps college and university teams around the world develop online and offline campaigns to push back against the violent and intolerant messages promulgated by terrorists and their supporters. The most recent National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released in October 2018, emphasizes “targeting terrorist networks that threaten the United States and our allies and … disrupting and denying their ability to mobilize, finance, travel, communicate, and inspire new followers.”
Established in 2015 as a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and Facebook, P2P provides student teams with funding and other resources with the objective of developing social and digital media initiatives, products and tools to counter many forms of extremism. To date, P2P has engaged over 10,000 student participants in 75 countries and 40 U.S. states and reached over 250 million people via social media campaigns, mobile apps, classroom visits, and integrative dialogue to promote critical thinking and digital literacy. Aiming to foster innovation from local communities and tech-savvy young minds, these platforms engage vulnerable populations on how to fight terrorist propaganda. Cross-sector partnerships are key to the success of programs like P2P, and serve as models for future community engagement.
The non-governmental organization Operation250 (Op250) that emerged from P2P aims to educate children, parents, and teachers about violent and threatening online material. Op250 hosted a “Combatting Hate and Extremism: Fostering Inclusion in our Schools and Communities” conference at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and trained over 250 educators in online safety. School administrators, resource officers, councilors, police officers, state officials, and community organizations used this conference as an opportunity to foster relationships throughout their community and exchange ideas on identifying and addressing terrorist radicalization and recruitment at the local level, including online material. In addition, the conference participants created an interactive video showing the threat radicalization poses to young children, accompanied by social media interaction and classroom visits by Op250’s founders.
Another award-winning P2P initiative is the Dare to Be Grey campaign created by Utrecht University students in the Netherlands that challenges polarization in their society. Leveraging digital, visual, and social tools to create an online platform for safe and open discussion, Dare to be Grey encourages dialogue among the silent majority of moderate thinkers whose opinions might otherwise be muted by more polarized voices. Highlighting relatable stories to foster participation, Dare to be Grey embraces the ‘grey’ middle ground on issues often thought to be ‘black and white.’ With an expansive engagement reaching 460,000 social media users across 45 countries, Dare to be Grey also hosted a symposium and training for social workers dealing with online polarization that could lead to violent or threatening behavior.
Focused on women’s rights and education as a bulwark against Boko Haram, American University of Nigeria in Yola, Nigeria, is working to register Women Against Violent Extremism (WAVE) as a formal Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). Using WhatsApp to create a network of 10,000 women, WAVE educated vulnerable women and young girls in the region against suicide bomber recruitment for Boko Haram and led community activities in towns, villages and markets, produced four videos, and implemented classroom sessions to spread awareness of the effects of terrorism. WAVE partnered with security experts to address 200 displaced young girls on terrorist recruitment strategies, and worked with a local NGO to meet with 200 additional vulnerable girls in the Nigerian towns of Mubi and Maiha. Storytelling serves as the key to spreading awareness in this grassroots campaign; WAVE members take responsibility in tackling the northeast Nigeria insurgency crisis through women’s empowerment, education, and peace-building.
With the help of P2P’s resources, young people strengthen terrorism prevention efforts through creative social and digital initiatives and use their credible voices to address the unique circumstances of their communities. P2P serves as a catalyst for young thinkers to be creative in countering terrorist recruitment tactics and spread effective, positive messages to their vulnerable peers. Critically, in P2P, students not only create the message, they are the messengers as well.
The United States and our partners provide good practices and encourage communities to use unconventional platforms to disrupt terrorist recruitment strategies and messaging. Threats such as ISIS and al-Qai’da have a worldwide reach, which calls for a wide range of partnerships to effectively counter the threat.
About the Author: Savanah Courtney served in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the Department of State.