Information operations

Social media analysts not convinced $18 million online program to counter extremist groups will work

Social media analysts say they are not convinced an $18 million online program to counter the social media influence of extremist groups will work.

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis said the Government-funded program would include “real-time social media monitoring” and a “counter-narrative” strategy.

Nicole Matejic is an adviser on international military crisis information operations and social media jihadism, and has advised governments and militaries around the world.

Speaking to The World Today, she said it was much more important to address the social issues driving people to extremist beliefs.

“I think approaching propaganda with propaganda isn’t necessarily going to be a successful strategy,” Ms Matejic said.

“I think you’ve got to look more holistically into how these people, and how these children, can actually be encompassed into Australian society and the community and feel valued and feel hurt and address the issues at the source rather than trying to sort of effect the counter-narrative at the end of the radicalisation process.”

Ms Matejic attended a forum on extremism and social media held by the Australian Security Research Centre in Canberra this week.

There’s a lot of complexity involved in just how the war is being fought, not just on the battlefield, but also in cyberspace.

Nicole Matejic

Also at the conference was Anooshe Mushtaq, a Muslim Australian who lived in Pakistan and Libya as a child before settling in Australia with her family.

Ms Mushtaq said there should be a strong focus on community engagement and that moderate Muslims can reach out to young Muslims vulnerable to radicalisation.

“It is important to understand what strategies these militant groups are using and the communities who will be able to help understand, translate these messages from the militant groups, are Muslims,” she said.

“So engaging them earlier on will be the best thing … growing terrorism and especially home-grown terrorism is a big issue, but the bigger issue is how to minimise the risk of a moderate Muslim moving towards fundamentalism and radicalisation process.”

Ms Matejic said it was the sophisticated nature of the online tactics used by groups like Islamic State which make countering the propaganda so difficult.

“It’s a very symmetric warfare situation whereas they have the same tools that we have so we have a very even playing field,” she said.

“There’s a lot of complexity involved in just how the war is being fought, not just on the battlefield, but also in cyberspace.”

She added that social media was being used to spread the message of extremist groups.

“It’s basically being used as a propaganda tool. So we get a lot of Facebook, Twitter action in terms of trying to influence people either to support them, to go to Syria or Iraq and fight for them, or even just to incite violent acts at home.”

But that message was not always about radicalism and brutality – it was also about “lifestyle”.

… they just see all sorts of things. And because their immigrant parents are not really tech savvy, they can’t really keep an eye on what their kids are doing … that’s a really big issue.

Anooshe Mushtaq

Ms Matejic said extremist groups target people disconnected from the community.

“It’s aim is to appeal to disaffected people so it’s a broad scale lifestyle as you, say, appeal so that the attraction is there,” she said.

“What they feel disaffected with, say in Australia, they can receive … a holistic kind of Muslim existence over in Iraq.

“And that’s very attractive to young people who may feel disaffected from their own communities here in Australia.”

Anooshe Mushtaq added that social media was used by extremist groups to promote their version of Islam.

“It is a very powerful tool so the waym they’re using social media is to promote a couple of key Islamic concepts which starts from the five-pillars of Islam, and as Islamic State declares itself the caliphate, they’re saying that ‘come and join us otherwise you will be the miscreant’ – and that is … the key messages that they’re promoting in the social media.”

Pressure on younger Muslim migrants to preserve culture

Ms Mushtaq said some Muslim migrants could become more conservative trying to preserve their culture, and this could put pressure on younger family members.

She said this was something she had experienced herself.

“When we moved here my uncle sponsored us so … we were asked not to go out and meet friends, and especially from the Australian Caucasian and non-Muslim backgrounds, and then we were asked not to attend any school excursions or any functions, so we used to come home and just [be at home or taken to] Pakistani Muslim family functions,” she said.

“The integration with the Australian society, mainstream society, was very less, and also coming from the armed forces background, the culture in the armed forces in Pakistan is very liberal.

“You know, they’re not very conservative at all, but suddenly there was a big change for us and it was a big impact on my life. I felt really isolated and very depressed and I didn’t like it here at all.”

Ms Mushtaq’s research has found that young people caught between cultures can be left confused and more vulnerable to radicalisation.

“I did interview a few people and it was the same message – that their parents came here, they’re stuck here and they’re isolated and what they do, they go in their room, they get onto the Facebook, they get onto the Twitter, and they just see all sorts of things,” she said.

“And because their immigrant parents are not really tech savvy, they can’t really keep an eye on what their kids are doing … that’s a really big issue.”

Ms Matejic said investment in preventative measures through the education and health system would be useful.

“We need to get into schools and education and the healthcare system … have those systems in place and those mechanisms in place so if a teacher or nurse or doctor feels that a child is at risk or is displaying certain behaviours, that they know where to find help,” she said.

She added that while countering propaganda online was needed, it would not address the reasons why people turn to extremist ideologies.

“It’s not going to be successful if they can’t holistically address the underlying causes of what drives young people to radicalisation,” she said.

But Ms Mushtaq said while some Muslim Australians do feel isolated, the community and government can work together to counter extremism.