The Role of Social and Technological Innovation in Countering Youth Radicalisation

Article by Alexandra Nightingale • Image Credit


I recently organised a conference on the role of social and technological innovation in countering youth radicalisation in Brussels at the European Union’s Committee of the Regions. This article features some of the research I came across and the initiatives and projects that were featured at the conference. These initiatives include soft tools, which are multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral in nature, and aim to address the issue at the local level. Part I examines the role of social innovation in promoting dialogue and showcases one think tank’s counter narrative strategy. Part II examines counter narrative strategies on the internet and in schools as discussed in the conference.


The figures for Europeans, particularly youths, becoming radicalised and/or joining extremist groups and then traveling abroad to become 'foreign fighters' are unprecedented in scale. In response, the European Union has organised numerous forums, including the establishment of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), to counter this growing phenomenon. These forums aim to exchange ideas, initiatives and ‘best’ practices and bring together various stakeholders from different sectors to tackle youth radicalisation.

Overall, the responses at EU and member state, regional and local level to counter youth radicalisation have been manifold and there has been a rise in initiatives with an emphasis on prevention. The ongoing devastating attacks in European cities have caused a surge in security measures, yet it should not be forgotten that prevention early on and at local level is as essential in the counter-terrorism strategy. The conference sought to build on the aspect of prevention and explore initiatives that approach young people in their local, day to day environments. More specifically – on the internet and in schools. The role of innovation in online counter narratives to promote more positive messages and shared values of tolerance and inclusion was therein considered.

Through the internet, radical and extremist groups have found opportune channels to spread their propaganda, recruit members and portray and incite acts of violence and terrorism in the name of diverse extremist ideologies. Upon travelling abroad to conflict affected regions, and if then returning, young Europeans are likely to have become part of a network of ‘comrade in arms’, attained skills to handle weapons and become desensitised to violence. A certain, but significant percentage will continue to propagate intolerance and ‘hate speech’ and further, be capable and willing to resort to violence.

As counter-radicalisation measures are complex and also raise questions about fundamental rights, religious, ethnic and racial discrimination and social cohesion, it must be acknowledged that stakeholders and actors from diverse fields (public and private sectors, academia and civil society) need to work together and combine their efforts and initiatives in carefully tailored, holistic and comprehensive approaches. No initiative should prescribe to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to anti-radicalisation. Nor specifically, in this case, are claims made that social and technological innovation are exhaustive solutions to the problem of youth radicalisation. Rather, the aim is to open and increase dialogue between various actors and explore the nexus between the investment in innovation and its potential as a means of countering youth radicalisation.

Part I

Social Innovation: Dialogue and the Counter-Narrative

The potential of Social Innovation in promoting new ideas to meet social ends and to renew dialogue between communities is growing in different areas. The conference sought to explore the aspect of promoting and investing in 'Innovation' to ‘empower’ youths. So far, little regard has been given to the role that innovation plays for those who are subject, and often already vulnerable, to being radicalised.

It is with dialogue that people are brought together to share ideas and promote a mutual understanding of the phenomenon of youth radicalisation and what needs to be done. The key would be to create a network connecting youth and religious groups, families of those radicalised, victims’ groups, the education sector, NGOs, governmental bodies and the private sector. The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) seeks to do precisely this, in that it acts as an “EU-wide umbrella network of practitioners and local actors involved in countering violent radicalisation”. RAN aims to pool together experiences and initiatives and challenge terrorist narratives. Furthermore, it serves as a channel between frontline practitioners and policy-makers.

Local politicians are also encouraged to engage with practitioners and stakeholders as well as with young people. Whilst there appears to be much 'on-the-ground' expertise and soft tools, many of these have failed to be taken on by the policy-makers as dialogue is still lacking. Further political will towards investing in prevention measures is also still greatly needed, as it is acknowledged that security or punitive measures cannot counter radicalisation alone.

Not only can the various actors collaborate on joint initiatives, exchange 'best' practices and pool resources but also share experiences. As noted earlier, counter measures are complex as youth radicalisation is highly sensitive and contentious. What must not be forgotten is the human side: the individuals. There exist various push and pull factors as well as traits of extremism such as force over persuasion and rejection of diversity. By illustrating the complex nature of the issue, it is clear that counter measures need to involve actors across society, local communities and private partners and research must continue.

A common approach that has been formulated is one by the International Centre for Counter Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) which advocates a counter narrative to the use of violence. This approach can be divided into four stages.

i) Identifying the Target Group/ the Individual

Within the radical and extremist groups and their online forums, there are individuals with a myriad of backgrounds and motives, who differ in the extent of their participation. One might for example make the distinction between extremist and violent extremist; those with radical ideas and those willing to travel abroad with these ideas and further, those that return and are ready to use violence. Much analysis is required to ascertain these target groups, alongside funding and cooperation across sectors that have the expertise and resources to identify individuals, their background and motives as well as the groups to which they affiliate themselves.

ii) The Message

Again, this will require in-depth analysis of the narrative that radical and extremist groups are disseminating. In turn, counter narratives should be drafted by interdisciplinary actors in order to address the diverse “sociological, psychological, criminological and religious elements” within extremists’ narratives. It should also be pointed out that the narrative should not be ‘our’ narrative, but one that is an alternative to violence. In addition, the language of the message must also be adapted to the target group and their (sub) culture in order for dialogue to be opened and for the counter narrative message to be received.

iii) Messengers

Credibility of the messengers to the target group is of upmost importance. Therein, messengers in close affiliation with youths are more likely to have an influence. For example family members, role models, educators, youth and religious leaders. Following rehabilitation and reintegration, former extremists can be credible in recounting their experiences and dispelling the illusion of the heroism of fighting abroad. Projects exist where ‘formers’ interact online on a one to one basis with those who take part in radical/extremist forums. 'Formers' can plant the first 'seeds of doubt' into the extremist narrative and show vulnerable young people that there are alternatives open to them. Victims of violent extremism also play an important role as they portray the tragic reality of the human loss and suffering caused by acts of violence and terrorism. In addition to those recounting their experiences of being direct victims of terrorist attacks or those having lost loved ones in such attacks, testimonies of mothers whose children have travelled abroad and were subsequently killed also touch many. In parallel, though governments are held to have a limited role in comparison to role models, they are still called upon to communicate and explain their foreign policy choices as well as their security and policy measures. Moreover, governments should support educators and fund programmes that teach students to think critically of the information that is so accessible on the internet and to train teachers to identify students at risk. 

iv) Channel of Communicating the Message

Communication of the counter narrative message needs to occur simultaneously on multiple platforms at the right time, for a sustained length of time, whilst also continuing to meet any changes that arise in the communication channels of extremists. Within an effective communication strategy key words in an extremist narrative should be identified. In turn, these key words can be drafted into a counter narrative which can then also feature in search engine results. Furthermore, public-private partnerships are crucial. It is often the companies in the technology sector who have the means and resources. They have expertise, skills and tools to analyse the online use by and trends of extremist and radical groups and are therefore able to produce innovative targeted videos to make an attractive and effective counter narrative for young people. One example which provides both a targeted and credible message to a specific group is that of Abdullah X. In cartoon-based YouTube videos, as well as on Twitter and Facebook accounts, a fictional character seeks to identify with those at risk of joining radical and extremist groups and discuss their grievances. Abdullah X aims to therein deconstruct, counter and build resilience to extremist narratives and radicalisation.

To conclude at this point, the above presents a strategy to create and implement a counter narrative to deter young people from engaging with and joining extremist and radical groups. This approach can be applied in virtual forums as well as in the daily lives of individuals at risk of being radicalised in their local community. The two different settings are discussed in further detail below.

Part II

The Internet - A New Form of Dialogue

Online videos by ISIS are very well made, with most in HD. This, along with the speed of their release, agility of users and resilience of their networks makes ISIS so successful in their use of the internet. One researcher found that there was too much focus on the tactical issues, rather than the strategic solutions.  For example, whilst ISIS is channelling its efforts into building its online infrastructure to further its propaganda and recruitment, the internet, when used correctly can be one of the greatest tools to counter radicalisation.
Issues exist surrounding the debate on censorship and freedom of speech. Most researchers find that taking down extremist websites or videos might not be an effective strategy. In some cases this is even counterproductive; when a video is taken down it is often reposted ten more times at a speed that cannot be matched. Instead, advocates of the counter narrative should adapt to new technologies, target their audience and then spread their messages. Calls continue to be made for creative ways of presenting alternative narratives as we evolve in terms of researching and recognising rapid changes in internet usage and trends. It turn, innovation in counter measures must continue and accelerate. Making more use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube could also lead to further innovate counter narratives and the dissemination of already existing videos. From audio-visual projects already carried out, results show that short counter narrative videos are the most effective. These should also be accompanied with an online marketing plan and, most importantly as previously stated, the messenger must be credible and able to relate to the target audience. Subsequently, progress must also be monitored and engagement sustained. However, resources are presently often lacking. 

Education – “Our most powerful tool”

During the conference, education at local and regional levels was proclaimed to be more powerful than repressive measures. RAN’s Manifesto for Education, aims to empower educators in preventing young people from turning to extremism and radicalisation. According to one of the authors of the manifesto, education has two main functions. Firstly, to create more people with better knowledge of the issues, in line with disseminating information and secondly, to create people who are more respectful towards each other. Unfortunately, these functions in society are often ignored. First line practitioners however, such as teachers or community workers, should support politicians in shaping youth policies. Likewise, local and regional authorities can play a role in running educational campaigns to provide support to young people.

The conference also explored how technology could be used in vocational education and training to promote youth employment. Whilst the common belief that poverty equals radicalisation was dismissed and past events disprove such a correlation, the increase in the rate of unemployment has often been associated with young Europeans becoming more radicalised. The lack of opportunities provides fertile ground for extremist groups to exploit anger, boredom, frustration and marginalisation. Likewise, it is acknowledged that better education does not prevent young people from becoming radicalised, so the question becomes what education can transfer to these people. Education should try to develop skills and competencies to create not only people with more knowledge, but with the capacity to think critically about the sources of information they receive.

In parallel, many young people are highly IT literate and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes have the potential to enhance and use their skills for productive means. New opportunities for the employment of young people can be created by investing in innovative entrepreneurial initiatives in strategic sectors such as ICT and social media.  As a part of their CSR, IBM, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education in Belgium, organises activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and also teaches children programming, from as early as primary school.  Likewise, in partnerships with NGOs, workshops were held to target youth unemployment. Workshops to attain and improve interview and computer skills were organised in partnership with Bon, the Brussels Reception Agency for Integration, and Integratie Centrum De8 in Antwerp to support non-native speaking job seekers.  The technology sector should be encouraged to continue to explore ways to promote innovation in education and vocational training to create skills and increase the employability potential of young people. At the same time, this can further cultivate an inclusive community and social environment. Local and regional authorities could thus attempt to foster closer ties with the private sector to implement programmes at a local level.  


The above presents an array of initiatives and departure points for working holistically to counter youth radicalisation. If we are to stem radicalisation and avoid the loss of our generation to intolerance and violence, stakeholders must create innovative projects and reinvigorate partnerships and cooperation across all levels: local, national and international. Funds, resources and up to date research must be at hand and dialogue at the ready. Only then is there hope for peaceful, tolerant societies and inclusive communities to secure decent futures for young people.


Committee of the Regions [Y] Factor Conference

On 22 June 2015, the European Committee of the Regions held its second [Y] Factor conference on how to prevent and counter youth radicalisation through innovative local and technological solutions. The focus was on the role of regional and local authorities, civil society and the private sector and on how dialogue, cooperation and technology can strengthen initiatives to deter young Europeans from joining extremist groups. The conference was based on two panels which explored solutions relating to “Social Innovation” and “Innovative Uses of Technology”.

The conference aimed to provide a platform for participants to present and share best practices, which could help inspire initiatives at the local level and to prevent youth radicalisation. Many thanks to the Committee of the Regions and the speakers whose presentations and work are included in the above article.

Social Innovation

Moli Dow, Project Associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, UK Grzegoz Drozd, Policy Officer at DG Grow, European Commission Donald Holbrook, Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews, UK  Péter Krekó, co-author of the RAN Manifesto on Radicalisation in European Schools and Director of Political Capital Institute, Hungary

Innovative Uses of Technology

Lisa McInerney, VOX-Pol Project Manager and Research Fellow at Irish Institute for Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University, Ireland Ali Fisher, Principle Data Scientist, VORTEX, University of Vienna, Austria  Merel Molenkamp, Account Manager RAN@ and RadarAdvies, The Netherlands  Katrien Hoogewijs, Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs Manager at IBM, Belgium/Luxembourg

Background Sources and Papers

Bonelli, L “The Appeal of the Righteous Cause”, Le Monde Diplomatique, English Edition, No 1508, August 2015

European Commission “Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources” Communication from the Commission COM(2013) 654 final, Brussels, 25.9.2013

European Commission “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism: Strengthening the EU's Response” Communication from the Commission COM(2013) 941 Final, Brussels, 15.1.2014
Radicalisation Awareness Network, Migration and Home Affairs, European Commission
Dr van Ginkel, B “Responding to Cyber Jihad: Towards an Effective Counter Narrative”, ICCT Research Paper, The International Centre for Counter- Terrorism – The Hague, March 2015.


Join our peacebuilding community

Email us if you have a peacebuilding strategy you would like to share through our website