Sunday 15 September 2019

Isil and rebels a click away from Irish teens

Last June, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald told an Oireachtas committee that an estimated 30 people had travelled to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq from Ireland
Last June, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald told an Oireachtas committee that an estimated 30 people had travelled to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq from Ireland
WARNING: Dr Maura Conway

Claire Mc Cormack

Young Irish adults and impressionable teenagers are accessing a huge range of poisonous propaganda on social media - not just from Isil, but a whole array of extreme organisations, according to a leading academic.

Parents should be aware of the very real threat that their children could make direct contact with rebel groups, left-wing military organisations and extreme-right groups across various platforms.

Although most people find harmful content of bombings, shootings and beheadings offensive, Dr Maura Conway - a senior lecturer in international security at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University - said others could be influenced.

"Isil has put a lot of resources, time, effort, money and manpower into its internet activity and the content is being disseminated very widely. The precise impact is difficult to determine, but it's probably having some effect," said Dr Conway, who is also the co-ordinator of a project called Vox-Pol - focused on researching the impacts of violent online political extremism.

"There is the potential for this content to influence anybody who accesses it but it's simply not the case that, if you access this information, you will be influenced in a positive way towards Isil," she said.

To a certain extent, Dr Conway says all parents should be concerned because the content is being very widely advertised online and across traditional mass media - and because it's so readily available.

"It's certainly something worth thinking and talking about, it's important that parents have at least some basic realisation about what is happening," she said.

But it's not just Isil material that could potentially cloud young minds.

Dr Conway also highlights the potential danger of content produced by other violent jihadi groups and a huge amount of extreme right online content that is also available.

"There are very large volumes of content circulating by extreme right organisations that, for example, give a very negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris," she said.

"Large amounts of content are being generated by these groups that vilify whole communities in very offensive ways and that could lead to a rise in Islamophobia," she said.

Last June, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald told an Oireachtas committee that an estimated 30 people had travelled to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq from Ireland - though last week, Adam Argiag, a Dublin-based researcher who has investigated the issue of foreign fighters, said he had not come across any hard information that Isil had recruited Irish people.

As a result, Dr Conway is calling for a national and international conversation about how other groups are using social media to make contact with potential recruits to fight against Isil.

"One of the ways in which the internet has significantly changed the dynamics within violent extremism and terrorism is the way in which internet users have the possibility to be in direct contact with people on the ground - whether it's Isil, foreign fighters or rebel militant organisations," said Dr Conway.

"There is the possibility of direct contact online and it's probably the case that those kinds of direct back-and-forth conversations can be quite influencing," she added.

When asked why young people could potentially be swayed by those involved in the ongoing war in the Middle-East, Dr Conway described the issue as the nature of youth.

"It's mostly attractive to young people casting around for identities and meaning in their lives. Unfortunately, some are attracted to violent organisations. Conflicts like Syria create a perfect storm, because there are a very large number of disparate groups operating from a range of ideologies and, when you add in the role of the internet, it can become a situation that inspires some to take action," she said.

However, she also highlighted the positive effects of social media to warn and inform people during attacks like those in Paris last week.

She also called on national and foreign governments to take the lead on this issue, and says social media platforms should not be solely responsible for monitoring harmful content.

"The internet can go in any direction. All of these groups have online activity, including the extreme right and left groups, as well as other non-jihadi groups in Syria," she said.

"Most governments, middle powers and small states like our own haven't thought very deeply about this issue and I think it is something that needs to be addressed, because the internet is going to play a role in conflict and security terrorism in future," she said.

In response to the issue, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the use of social media in facilitating travel to conflict zones and in radicalising people is "well-recognised".

"While there is no doubt that the internet and social media are overwhelmingly used for positive ends, it is essential to take all measures possible to ensure they cannot be readily abused by people or groups who would wish to incite hatred or violence," said the spokesperson.

"Garda authorities are aware of a number of people here whose activities and behaviour in respect of supporting extremist groups may be a cause for concern. They are being monitored," they added.

Sunday Independent

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