Countering violent extremism and hate speech online

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RNF Director of Global Strategy Brian Pellot’s opening remarks to the International Interfaith Conference in Pristina, Kosovo, May 28-30, 2015.

Interfaith Kosovo

To well-off Millennials and digital natives who live in free and connected societies, social media is not a phenomenon or a passing craze. It’s not a threat to tradition or a miraculous opportunity. It’s an integral part of our personal and professional lives and a primary means of communication. It’s the default. It’s the norm. It just is.

Digital screens greet us in the morning and tuck us into bed at night, often still vibrating beneath our pillows. Only when we’re tongue-tied by dead batteries or spotty Internet coverage does this modern technology’s importance become more than an afterthought.

So if social media just is, why are we gathered here in Kosovo to discuss interfaith dialogue in the age of social media? If the medium is so ingrained in how we communicate that some of us consider it irrelevant or fail to consider it at all, what makes this more than another generic conference about interfaith dialogue?

First of all, we are not all Millennials or digital natives. We do not all enjoy fast, reliable and affordable mobile coverage at home. Many in our societies cannot afford smartphones or laptops. Some of us live in countries where the Internet is heavily censored. In short, we can’t all take social media for granted.

For the billions of people who have never been online, many of whom will join us in the coming decade, these platforms still represent both real opportunities and real threats.

Myanmar offers an interesting glimpse at what can happen when a society, long isolated, is suddenly brought online in the age of social media.

Five years ago, before sweeping reforms cracked open Myanmar’s telecommunications sector, mobile SIM cards cost up to $2,000 — 10 times more than a person’s average annual income. Flash forward to 2014, after the arrival of two international carriers, and SIMs cost a mere $1.50. Today, mobile phone shops line the bustling streets of Yangon and quiet corners of small towns across much of the country. Young entrepreneurs sell mobile credit and set up users’ Facebook accounts from rickety tables.

In a matter of months, affordable mobile Internet coverage went from an impossible dream to an exciting reality. But just like any transition so rapid, this new reality — Myanmar’s digital revolution — has also been somewhat of a nightmare.

Not all social media users in Myanmar seem to grasp or choose to acknowledge the sarcasm inherent in that popular adage, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.” Radical Buddhist monks have circulated unsubstantiated rumors and falsehoods on Facebook, fueling riots that have led to deaths. The most infamous of these monks is Ashin Wirathu, who TIME Magazine dubbed “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Wirathu has used social media to spew faith-based extremism and bolster support for violent Islamophobic intolerance. The situation is grim, clearly, but not without remedy.

A local coalition of civil society activists called Panzagar, which means “flower speech” in Myanmar, has teamed up with Facebook to combat and counter this spread of hateful and dangerous speech. Last fall my organization Religion News Foundation trained journalists and bloggers from across Myanmar how to responsibly cover faith and conflict without stoking the flames of discontent. We also advised Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian faith leaders how to accurately represent themselves when interacting with online and traditional media as a means of balancing and overpowering extremists, who are often louder and better organized than those seeking peace.

This rapid spread of dangerous speech and positive efforts to counter it are hardly unique to Myanmar, as we’re all well aware.

KAICIID, an interfaith dialogue center based in Vienna, is training religious leaders and dialogue practitioners how to counter violent extremism through social media. Google is exploring how technology and social media can be used to prevent the radicalization of young people and to de-radicalize others. Google also sponsored our Religion News Service to report on efforts to promote religious tolerance and combat hatred online.

These kinds of collaborations among civil society organizations, faith leaders, policymakers, corporate representatives, media professionals and general publics are critical if our efforts to counter violent extremism stand any chance of success. In the age of social media, offline conferences merely represent a beginning. The conversations we start here in Pristina must continue online, where social media can help us mediate a better society across borders and faith lines.

Yes, violent extremists can use social media to spread lies, recruit disenfranchised communities and indoctrinate disaffected and vulnerable individuals, but they don’t hold a monopoly on these channels. Peace advocates can just as easily and effectively use social media to directly counter these messages of hatred and intolerance without stifling freedom of expression. Through positive messaging we can critique their hypocrisies and condemn their injustices. Through biting satire we can undermine their ability to recruit allies and erode their power. If we collaborate, if we learn from one another both online and off, we can have the last laugh.

Now let’s get to work.

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