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UK’s online counter-extremism strategy is failing, research suggests

UK’s online counter-extremism strategy is failing, research suggests
The British government is losing its fight against extremism in the digital space, a new study indicates.

Joint research by the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics as well as the firm Digitalis found that extremist content is becoming even more prevalent on the web.

Analyzing the results produced by the top search engines for high-risk key words, the study found that just five percent of the suggested content featured the government’s counter-radicalization policies.

As a result, despite the fact the government has taken down more than 250,000 pieces of extremist content from the Internet since 2010, online radicals still remain largely unchallenged in the digital space.

Worryingly, the mechanism of radicalization via search engines is both gradual and subliminal, which makes it altogether more effective than outright extremist propaganda.

The typical scheme initially involves a bait: the deliberately non-violent content that is suggested to someone who searches the web for topics like ‘kafir’ or ‘non-believer.

The original content, however, steadily directs the reader towards more radical websites, which feature calls for the abolition of the democratic government and the establishment of a state governed by Islamic law.

From there, the online reader is referred to even more extremist material, which often incites jihad – holy war against non-believers.

The new research highlights shortcomings in the government’s strategy, as it was traditionally believed individuals are radicalized primarily through social media.

Speaking to the BBC, extremism expert Eman El-Badawy said: “People always knew when they were looking at a jihadist video where it came from, as it was clearly branded.

But this is a much deeper problem.

“It’s extremist content popping up as a resource, almost like a Wikipedia entry, that people refer to,” El-Badawy added.

An earlier study conducted in May 2016 found at least 54,000 monthly searches in the UK for keywords that predominantly led to extremist content.

The UK government has recently stepped up its counter-radicalization efforts to address terrorist propaganda.

The Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, a joint taskforce of the police and the Home Office, is blocking around 2,000 pieces of extremist material online every week.

This Thursday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd met with tech firms, including broadband and phone companies, to establish a forum in order to help the government tackle digital terrorist propaganda.

The Home Secretary stressed that online extremism poses a “very real and evolving threat” and welcomed “the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum that will help to do this.”

In taking forward this work, I’d like to see the industry go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content, but stopping it going up in the first place.

“I’d also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm,” Rudd added.