Authors: Elise Vermeersch, Julie Coleman, Méryl Demuynck and Elena Dal Santo
Affiliated organization: The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: March 18, 2020
While the influence of social media on the spread of violent extremist narratives and online radicalisation processes has recently become a focal point of research in the Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) field, most of the studies thus far have focused on Western countries and have often been aimed at analysing phenomena such as homegrown and lone wolf terrorism, as well as online radicalisation of foreign terrorist fighters. Far less evidence-based research has explored the influence of social media on terrorism in Africa and even less regarding Mali in particular.
Although traditional forms of media remain highly relevant across Africa, mostly notably television and radio channels (particularly given their accessibility to illiterate populations), online forms of media, including social media, are gaining in significance. There has been an impressive rise in the use of mobile phones in the last two decades across the African continent: 10 million people had a subscription in 2000 compared to 647 million in 2011. This number has undoubtedly increased in the subsequent years. In Mali, there are more than 97.1 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, with 91% mobile penetration rate.
As of January 2019, there were 12.48 million unique internet users in Mali, equivalent to 64% of the population.
The affordability of mobile services has given rise to a vast number of changes, including economic development and increased political engagement. However, it also facilitates the easy and widespread dissemination of extremist beliefs and recruitment propaganda by violent extremist groups. Social media (e.g. Facebook) and social messaging (e.g. WhatsApp) platforms provide a stage on which such groups can communicate with their audience across wide geographic ranges in a manner that can be easily and almost instantly shared with an even broader network of potential sympathisers or supporters. Extremist actors use these platforms to reinforce their ideological narratives, to connect to potential recruits, to publicise their actions (or to discredit their opponents), and to fundraise.
Youth engaging in communicating counter narratives may also be placing themselves at risk of response or retaliation from violent extremist groups. Most of the youth respondents recognised multiple risks associated with disseminating counter narratives to extremist propaganda. Those risks range from a lack of understanding and misinterpretation, psychological or physical violence, intimidation, insults and serious verbal abuse, stigmatisation (based on religion or ethnicity), or hatred from relatives and community members, amongst others
Although the use of social media specifically by violent extremists in Mali remains under-studied, both observations and surveys conducted by ICCT and UNICRI confirm that radicalisation and recruitment by extremist groups is also taking place through social media and messaging platforms throughout the country. For instance, Katiba Macina’s leader, Amadou Koufa, has become known for using channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram to call for members of the Peul (Fulani) community to rise up against the Malian Armed Forces (known as FAMa), the G5 Sahel countries, and France’s Barkhane forces. Ansar Dine, now part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), has adopted social media and messaging technologies to advance their messages. Using Telegram, the group has pushed a narrative of framing itself as the ‘good guys’, by fighting off foreign oppression, including through releasing photographs such as ones of suicide bombers who carried out an attack on the Timbuktu Airport in 2018.
Given the significance of the role of social media in garnering and maintaining support for violent extremist groups elsewhere, most notably by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the ability of groups in Mali to do the same should not be underestimated, particularly given the prevalent use of mobile phones, the internet, and increasingly, social media.
Youth and social media: a complex relationship
With the rise of mobile phone use and widespread internet coverage, especially mobile internet, youth in Mali are active users of social media platforms. Almost all the youth respondents surveyed as part of the MERIT project use social media on a daily basis, favouring it over traditional forms of media, seemingly regardless of whether they view social media as trustworthy or not. Expanding to their wider peer group, the young people surveyed acknowledged the use of social media by extremist groups in the country and expressed concern that Malian youth as a whole lack sufficient tools and competences to counter the propaganda being espoused by extremist actors. This section lays out the use of (social) media by youth, as well as their perceptions of its trustworthiness and its use by violent extremists. The subsequent section addresses the vulnerabilities to propaganda observed amongst youth, and suggests steps that can be taken in order to prevent radicalisation.
For instance, Katiba Macina’s leader, Amadou Koufa, has become known for using channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram to call for members of the Peul (Fulani) community to rise up against the Malian Armed Forces (known as FAMa), the G5 Sahel countries, and France’s Barkhane forces
Almost all of the respondents use social networks every day – ranging from “a couple of times a day” to “all day” – although their usage might depend on the Internet connection. Only one youth mentioned using social networks five times per week. However, despite their significant and frequent use of social networks, the youth reported that they do not necessarily trust these networks. Only 41% of the respondents indicated that they trust social networks, whereas the remaining 59% either do not trust social networks at all or only partially.
Youth’s perceptions of violent extremist online propaganda
A significant majority of the youth (85%) believe that terrorist groups in Mali are using social media. According to them, the main objectives for terrorist groups are to spread information and attract attention and support (65%). Some respondents also believe that terrorist groups used media to collect information on the state and population (17%), or to gain financial support (9%). Few respondents (9%) think that terrorist groups do not use social media.
According to the youth respondents, terrorist groups mainly use Facebook (33%), followed by WhatsApp (21%), Twitter (14%), YouTube (12%), the radio (10%) and Instagram (8%). Corresponding to respondents’ recognition that terrorist groups are utilising social media in Mali to effectively recruit youth, a large majority of respondents (66%) consider Malian youth as not having enough competences and tools to counter terrorists´ propaganda.
The Effectiveness and Risks of Counter Narratives
Counter narratives are one method that has been utilised by numerous actors in recent years, in an effort to reduce vulnerability to online radicalisation and engagement in violent extremism. This approach has received considerable criticism, especially with respect to initiatives set up by the American or various European governments. While scepticism of the counter narrative approach remains, some recent research does suggest that the strategy could be effective in terms of preventing violent extremism, especially if the counter narratives are “authentic and reflect youth perceptions of self and others, especially in terms of injustice, felt experiences of discrimination, corruption and abuse by security forces.” Counter narrative campaigns promoted by institutional actors may encounter resistance and mistrust and, in certain cases, might exacerbate resentment on behalf of the intended recipients. However, organic, comprehensive and multi-sectoral initiatives led by trustworthy actors may have an effective impact in terms of preventing and countering violent extremism.
Youth engaging in communicating counter narratives may also be placing themselves at risk of response or retaliation from violent extremist groups. Most of the youth respondents recognised multiple risks associated with disseminating counter narratives to extremist propaganda. Those risks range from a lack of understanding and misinterpretation, psychological or physical violence, intimidation, insults and serious verbal abuse, stigmatisation (based on religion or ethnicity), or hatred from relatives and community members, amongst others. Some might also assume that the author is being paid by another actor to spread such messages, resulting in a lack of trust in both the message and the author. Most seriously, disseminators of counter narrative messages may become targets or enemies for extremist groups, with inherent associated risks (repression, aggression, being kidnapped or killed).
Data, including information collected by the MERIT project, demonstrates that social media and social messaging are powerful tools in Mali, and have the potential to both positively and negatively impact society, particularly in relation to violent extremism. Malian youth use social media and messaging as a means of communication and information sharing on various topics. According to the youth respondents, confirmed by external information sources, violent extremist groups use the same types of social media both to collect and spread information, as well as to attract attention and support (including financial resources). Social media channels enable violent extremist groups to quickly and cheaply spread their propaganda among young people, who may be a vulnerable target because of their age, socio-economic situation and other contingent vulnerabilities. Because social media platforms are used by both the youth community and violent extremists, social media is a key means to either fuel or reduce violence in the country. It is therefore paramount for all users, from authorities to communities, to be aware of the risks and benefits that modern digital technologies can yield in preventing and countering violent extremism, and to be trained on the best ways to use these channels in a positive manner while preserving their security.
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