In the age of information, young people are more connected than ever before. However, this connectivity also exposes them to the risk of extremism. Extremism has emerged as a significant global concern, with the internet serving as a potent catalyst for the spread of extremist ideologies, posing a significant challenge to global security and social harmony. While those disseminating hate speech or extremist beliefs represent a minority among online platform users, their influence extends broadly, particularly impacting susceptible young individuals. They frequently invest substantial effort in cultivating extensive virtual communities that amplify the reach of their harmful ideologies, consequently earning significant respect within these online circles.
Social media platforms can sometimes be weaponised by those involved in international conflicts. A case in point is the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel. In the aftermath of the attack, various social media platforms were inundated with violent and graphic videos and images, which could easily be accessed by minors. Extremist groups often exploit the limited oversight by social media companies. For example, after downsizing its content moderation team, X, previously known as Twitter, was flooded with extremist material. This has prompted the EU to warn Elon Musk that the “Digital Services Act sets very precise obligations regarding content moderation”. These obligations include clear and transparent policies on the permitted content, prompt enforcement of these policies, and the timely takedown of illegal content. The EU also accused Elon Musk of allowing “fake and manipulated images and facts circulating on your platform in the EU, such as repurposed old images of unrelated armed conflicts or military footage that actually originated from video games”.
Tech companies, as the gatekeepers of much of the internet, bear a significant responsibility in combatting extremism. However, the dual challenge of protecting free expression while preventing the spread of extremist ideologies is not straightforward. Transparency and accountability within these companies are critical aspects of this process. In fact, this is the main purpose of the EU Digital Services Act, which aims to make online platform providers accountable for creating a safer space for all users, especially for minors.
The proliferation of extremist material and disinformation on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram has prompted concerned parents to delete their children’s social media applications, apprehensive that they might inadvertently encounter violent or extremist content. Although this might be a justified response in light of the recent conflicts, such an approach will not protect minors for ever. In the long run, the key to countering extremism and disinformation is digital literacy.
Digital literacy, which encompasses various skills needed to navigate the digital landscape safely, responsibly and effectively, goes beyond basic internet proficiency. It aims to foster media literacy, which is the ability to evaluate online information critically. It empowers individuals to distinguish credible information from disinformation, a fundamental defence against extremist narratives. At the core of digital literacy is critical thinking. This skill encourages individuals to question information, evaluate sources, and seek diverse perspectives. Thus, it helps develop a healthy scepticism that makes individuals less vulnerable to extremist manipulation.
One of the first steps in combating extremism among young people through digital literacy is teaching them to recognize extremist content. It’s essential to develop their awareness of warning signs, specific language, and imagery that are associated with extremist ideologies. This recognition serves as a crucial tool for intervention and counter-narratives. Digital literacy not only helps young individuals recognize extremist narratives, but also empowers them to respond effectively. It encourages the dissemination of informed, empathetic counterarguments that challenge extremist viewpoints. Promoting open dialogue and understanding the underlying motivations of those who might be susceptible to extremism can be a highly effective way to counter radicalization among young people.
Protecting personal information online is not only about safeguarding privacy, but also about guarding against online radicalization and recruitment. Extremist groups actively target potential recruits, making online safety a crucial facet of digital literacy. Young people must not only understand the importance of safeguarding their personal information but also learn how to recognize and report extremist content.
Schools and other educational institutions, such as higher educational institutions, are key players in nurturing digital literacy among young people. By incorporating digital literacy into their curricula and their wider agendas, educators can help students understand the digital world safely and responsibly. This early exposure can build resilience against extremist propaganda and recruitment efforts. However, promoting digital literacy among young people to combat extremism is not the sole responsibility of educational institutions. Parents, caregivers, and the wider community play a vital role in fostering digital literacy. Encouraging open conversations about online experiences, providing guidance, and setting positive examples are crucial elements of this holistic approach.
In a world where young people are growing up immersed in digital technology, it is imperative that we equip them with the tools needed to navigate the digital realm safely and critically. Combating extremism through digital literacy offers a promising solution. By fostering digital literacy from an early age, promoting media literacy, and encouraging open dialogue, we can create a resilient, informed, and digitally savvy younger generation. Effective digital literacy is not just about safeguarding against extremism; it is about empowering our youth to be responsible, critical, and engaged digital citizens who stand against hate and intolerance, ultimately creating a safer and more inclusive digital world for all.