In the Media

Montreal researchers launch online anti-radicalization project

by Amanda Connolly

April 24, 2015

Two Montreal researchers are urging the federal government to invest more resources in helping organizations develop new ways to engage youth in the fight against online extremism and radicalization.

Kyle C. Matthews and Marie Lamensch, who run the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab at Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, are launching an initiative that will see youth around the world step up to work with them as “global ambassadors” to build counter-narratives to extremist ideology on the Internet.

Their #No2DigitalExtremism project doesn’t receive any federal funding but they both work closely with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide to educate MPs on extremism and how it takes root online.

And while they say all members have been supportive of the need to combat online radicalization and extremism, Matthews and Lamensch say there is still a serious lack of resources for researchers looking to develop new counter-extremism programs, particularly those that recognize the role youth can play in engaging peers who may be vulnerable to radicalization.

“They talk a big game about dealing with these problems but they aren’t really supporting NGOs or researchers to deal with the problem,” said Matthews, who is also a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. “We want to become a hub in Canada and internationally in dealing with these issues.”

At its core, the #No2DigitalExtremism initiative aims to get youth talking about what causes radicalization and how to spot early warning signs among peers.

It comes in the aftermath of several high-profile cases of Quebec youth attempting to leave the country to fight with radical Islamic groups or successfully doing so.

Just last week, a Montreal teenage couple was charged with terror offences for allegedly attempting to join jihadis in Syria.

The couple also face charges of building or possessing explosives and there has been speculation they may have been plotting a Boston Marathon-style attack in Montreal. 

Three months earlier, six teens from Montreal and Laval left Canada to join militants in Syria after becoming radicalized.

Too many examples exist to name in Canada alone and NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says it’s critical the government recognize the need to create new models of combatting extremism.

“There’s no question – the peer approach is the approach that I think we know works,” he said. “It is the way in which those who are trying to recruit and trap people have used, so if it’s an approach that’s been successful in recruiting people then it goes without saying it’s an approach that should be used to oppose the same people and messages.”

Extremist groups like ISIS have proven successful at luring young Westerners into their grasp and Lamensch says it’s not only adults who are worried about the growing reach of the radicals – youth are too.

“They’re worried about the future,” she said. “They’re also worried [because] could it happen to their classmates? Could one of their classmates leave and decide to go to Syria? As we’ve seen in Quebec and in Europe, very young youth and kids are just leaving and then I think their classmates are at a loss because they hadn’t seen it coming.”

Matthews says the popularity of events like We Day, which motivates young people to take a stand on issues that are important to them, shows there is an appetite among youth to take on a more active role in protecting their own futures and societies.

“It’s something that I think has been missing in this discussion on ISIL and the threat of extremism,” Dewar said. “There’s limitless possibilities here … we haven’t seen anything like [this] supported by government in a robust way.”

Dewar cautioned that while such programs should not be managed by government, there is huge potential for governments to lead in a supporting role.

Matthews agreed, saying researchers and organizers are recognizing that and want to partner with the tech-savvy generation to reach out to vulnerable youth – but they need support and funding to really make a difference.

“We have to start engaging individual Canadian youth and others internationally to start creating an online community of sentinels that are going to start talking back or at least challenging people online,” he said.

“Young Canadians want to get involved.”

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