Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising.
Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.
The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.
The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.
A few criticisms
The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so
The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.
Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.
The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.
The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.