Social media is used by violent extremists to recruit young people

Cyberawareness and the study of cybercrime are crucial to dealing with the problem

In this guest post, Dr Vasileios Karagiannopoulos, online MSc Cybercrime Module Leader, and Dr Annie Kirby, Research Associate at the University of Portsmouth's Cybercrime Awareness Clinic discuss how cyberawareness and the study of cybercrime can play an important role in preventing online radicalisation of young people. 

Our modern information societies are becoming exponentially based on digital technologies for all kinds of activities, from shopping and education to meeting friends and finding partners. Social media is the most popular way for young people to communicate today, as social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are readily accessible (Van Ouytsel et al., 2020; Liang, 2015).

Data compiled by the OECD in 2015 revealed that 24.1% of 15 year olds in the UK spent more than 6 hours online a day whilst outside of school, and 94.8% of 15 year olds used social media sites before or after school (OECD, 2017). Moreover, data from 11 countries show that between 43 and 64 percent of 9 to 17 year olds look for news online, while 12 to 17 percent of children discuss political problems online (Cho., et al, 2020).

The extreme potential of social media platforms and encrypted internet communications, such as Whatsapp or Viber, has attracted the attention of criminals as well and these platforms have also become tools in the hands of groups advocating for terrorist causes and violent political extremism.

Social media apps on a mobile phone

There has been a wealth of sources highlighting the extensive use of social media platforms by terrorist groups for acquiring funding through the sale of illicit substances and items, such as drugs and cultural relics, the distribution of propaganda and for recruiting young people across the globe to join their cause (Hanim et al., 2017; Klausen, 2015).

In fact, online grooming is now a more efficient and globalised way of spreading extremist messages and approaching disaffected and marginalised young people in order to enlist them to politically violent causes (Alava et al., 2017).

So where does cyberawareness and the study of cybercriminal activity, cybersecurity and Internet regulation come in when it comes to dealing with the above problem and what role can an innovation initiative such as the Portsmouth Cybercrime Awareness Clinic play in tackling online radicalisation?

Orpheus project logo Going beyond direct interventions and the attempt to perceive young people as passive, vulnerable actors in need of safeguarding that potentially further marginalises and alienates them, our Clinic team along with our partners in project ORPHEUS, is looking to develop young people’s media and information literacy.

Through developing relevant educational trainings in this area, we are trying to empower young people by enhancing their critical thinking and their sense of democratic global citizenship with the ultimate aim of making them more resilient to radicalisation grooming attempts (Alava et al., 2017).

Based on the above we are taking advantage of our wider understanding of young people’s behavioural trends online and the modern cyberthreats and risks they face and we are developing a training programme for enhancing young people’s critical thinking online.

This is only one aspect of the project ORPHEUS, which is currently in development, but our innovation is to use our expertise in cybercrime and cybersecurity to develop a programme that will support teachers, youth workers, and young people themselves in their efforts to navigate the Internet with confidence and critical awareness.

For example, we employ our knowledge of techniques and tools relating to preventing sexual online grooming in order to equip young people with the understanding of how grooming by a violent extremist group might occur.

We also acknowledge that most of the initial grooming is done through propaganda and the normalisation of racism and hateful behaviour overall and we are trying to train young people in seeing beyond misinformation and fake news, whilst providing them with the tools to challenge all controversial information they come across.

This becomes even more pertinent in the current COVID-19 climate, where fake news, deepfakes and conspiracy theories are circulated on a regular basis and even by mainstream politicians or famous musicians or athletes. It's a process that will keep getting more important as we move towards more extended online experiences for our work and everyday life functions.

If you’re passionate about understanding and combating cybercrime, consider our part-time, online Cybercrime MSc. You can choose from start dates in January, May and September:

Explore the course  ❯

References:

Alava, S., Frau-Meigs, D., & Hassan, G. (2017). Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media: Mapping the Research. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0026/002603/260382e.pdf

Cho, Alexander; Byrne, J. P. Z. (2020). Digital civic engagement by young people. UNICEF Office of Global Insight and Policy, (February).

Hanim, N., & Ibrahim, B. (2017). The use of facebook in ISIS recruitment-an exploratory study. Journal of Media and Information Warfare, 10, 51–77.

Klausen, J. (2015). Tweeting the Jihad: Social media networks of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 38(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2014.974948

Liang, Y., Zheng, X., Zeng, D. D., Zhou, X., Leischow, S. J., & Chung, W. (2015). Exploring how the tobacco industry presents and promotes itself in social media. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(1), e24. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.3665

OECD. (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-Being. In Oecd. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264273856-en

Van Ouytsel, J., Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., Walrave, M., & Ponnet, K. (2020). Sexting within young adults’ dating and romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 36, 55–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.04.007

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