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Online strategy to ‘re-direct’ extremists

A surprising encounter 

When Vidhya Ramalingam first sat with a white supremacist in Sweden, she was surprised by his curiosity and his willingness to talk with an Indian-American woman.

“It was very strange spending time with white supremacists who were mostly men. They were actually surprisingly open and willing to talk with me. I think they were confused by me. They were used to being approached by journalists, activists, or researchers who were white and male. So initially I think they met out of curiosity. But then opportunities kept arising to meet with more because word travelled that I listened.”

In July 2011, far right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed seventy-seven people in a shooting rampage and bombing attack in Norway. At this time, few people were working in the field of countering far right-wing extremism, and Ramalingam’s expertise was sought out by European governments.

“After (Breivik) people woke up to the actual terror attack from the far-right, it was the first real kick for many governments.”

Countering violent extremism

Ramalingam is one of the founding directors at Moonshot, a small and relatively young company working in digital countering violent extremism (CVE). Her work focusses on both violent far right-wing and ISIS-inspired extremism.

Her interest in this space was sparked over a decade ago, when she noticed that many organisations working in CVE were not personally engaging with extremists.

“There was a lot of ‘othering’ and talking about those who disagreed with them, as if they were monsters, and I thought, while that rhetoric is helpful when galvanizing the greater good to get people involved, if you actually want to change behaviours, calling them ‘monsters’ is not the way forward.”

So, she decided to do something about it, and began reaching out to engage directly with white supremacists, setting the base from which Moonshot was founded.

“We set up the organisation as we saw a gap in the sector, the ability to take risks. This is due to a range of factors, including being beholden to a board or donors, which inhibits risk-taking in CVE work. We also found organisational structures were another barrier to increased risk capacity.  We wanted to move into the online space in a fast-paced way, so the setup has an American west coast start-up culture.”

"Meeting people face to face and understanding they are human beings with rationality is important. They have come to this belief through a set of experiences and to change their minds, we must start a conversation with them. It is important that we hear people’s stories."

– Vidhya Ramalingam

A differernt approach

Ramalingam and her founding partner Ross Frenett employ a three-pronged approach to digital CVE. The first is counter-messaging work, the second is online intervention, where they mirror tactics that extremist movements use to engage people in the online space, and the third is capacity building, where they train local organisations to do this work online. Moonshot deploys teams of social workers and former extremists for direct messaging and it also offers support programs. 

Ramalingam said one of their approaches, which is often met with resistance, is to convince investors to engage with at-risk individuals.

“Very few people are engaging with at-risk individuals. We aim to find people who sit at that threshold before the police need to intervene. These are the people rarely touched by counter narrative campaigns.”

“There are two main bodies that watch this group; police are watching them and so are recruiters and extremist groups, as this is their largest audience. So, we aim to inject a third party who will protect these individuals using social work and wellbeing models.”

Moonshot’s approach goes beyond delivering ‘counter narratives’ to include the ‘redirect method’. 

“When people think of online work in this space, they only think of ‘counter narratives’. But this is very limiting. You’re not going to change someone’s mind by telling them their ideology is wrong. We know it’s not just ideology that pulls people into this, so we need messaging that deals with other drivers. We do messaging around mental health, wellbeing, and social support.”

The ‘redirect method’ is a program in partnership with Google and YouTube, to lower the possibility of encountering extremist content online. The method serves ‘Trojan’ content, which is content dressed up in the way extremists might expect, but when clicked on, it offers CVE content that redirects users to positive content.

Ramalingam said their research discovered that both ISIS-inspired and far right-wing extremist audiences are disproportionately more likely to engage with mental health advertisements, and as a result, they redirect users to mental health services.

“We have found violent right-wing audiences are 15% more likely to engage with advertisements about anxiety and stress than our control group surveys. What this has taught us is the importance of moving beyond ideological counter narratives. If you really want to engage with them, this is a way forward.”

Closer to home

Moonshot will be starting work across Australia with the violent far-right within the online space.

“We have found pretty loud and vocal audiences across Australia and there is a need to engage with them.”

Another major finding of Moonshot’s research is the need to move beyond broad-based messaging and engage in more personalised approaches. 

“So many current campaigns are around ‘community’ work. We strongly push the sector to go beyond communities and move into personalised and individualised messaging. The conflation of ‘at-risk’ with broad based characteristics of groups, is problematic and undermines the work that needs to be done. It is not right that moderate Muslims need to sit anywhere near this kind of work. It is work that needs to be done with the truly at-risk individuals.”

But Ramalingam says it is still through her earlier work in Sweden that she learned the most important lesson that has since shaped her approach to CVE work.

“I think people feeling and being heard is the basis of all good CVE work.”

“Meeting people face to face and understanding they are human beings with rationality is important. They have come to this belief through a set of experiences and to change their minds, we must start a conversation with them. It is important that we hear people’s stories.”

The Point

The founder of Moonshot, Vidhya Ramalingam, spoke to The Point magazine about her work in countering violent extremism through data driven innovation.

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