France's Combat of Extremism Through Social Media

Curator's Note

Following the January 2015 terror shooting at the satirical French magazine, "Charlie Hebdo", the French government launched an ambitious campaign, #stopdjihadisme, as a practical way of deterring young people from the allure of radicalization. In releasing a series of testimonial videos from individuals whose acquaintances succumbed to extremist indoctrination, the French government’s goal in disseminating these cautionary experiences across social media platforms holds the potential for the public to “comprendre, agir, décrypter, se mobiliser”(understand, act, decrypt, and mobilize) the early phases of extremism. Unlike the former generation of extremists who sought membership into radical circles by frequenting physical social spaces, the technological-literate search these opportunities through online social networks; thus enabling a more convenient and clandestine exchange of communication through time and space. Extremist groups like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), exploit the use of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, What’sApp, and several other podcast services, knowing that young people in Western countries, like France, connect through them. Online users obtaining access to extremist images and messages preoccupies the French government given that France experienced two attacks in one year. Appropriately, the government enlists social media platforms (and users) as tools for counter-combat. France’s #stopdjihadisme campaign works well since the same social media platforms extremist groups use to broadcast their propaganda becomes a shared stage for anti-terrorism. Although this effort on behalf of the French government is unique and innovative, concerns have been raised regarding the possibility of people falsely reporting a person who is suspected to be partaking in indoctrination. The clip accompanying this post demonstrates the ways in which the French government employs a propagandist campaign to illuminate information about extremism. The rhetoric used in the video already creates a division between “Ils” (them) and the rest of the French republic. Furthermore, the graphic footage repurposed from ISIS videos is designed to fit an anti-terror narrative. In addition, the video appears to deglamorize radicalism in exposing the dark side of djihad. Questions: Is the French government relying on stereotypes and markers of cultural identity as signs of extremism? Are these videos reaching the targeted group of people, and are they effective? Should the French government be obliged to release data on successful preventions and failures of disintegrating extremism in France?


Michael - this is great. We don't see enough discussion of this approach in the U.S. (by which I mean, attention to the ways foreign governments are engaging disenfranchised youth via the same platforms). I think, at least on first approach, the government must rely on stereotypes (race and religion) - and I think that, in this particular case, it's probably 90% accurate because of the nature of ISIS's approach to recruits - who are typically both culturally and economically outside mainstream, "white" French society. It'll be interesting to see if the government itself is tracking how many hits their posts are getting, and whether they're being retweeted, viewed and responded to by ISIS, etc. As to the obligation to release data - I think they'll feel they have to in order to justify the continued State of Emergency (particularly the funding for the operations being conducted under that declaration); they are, ultimately, accountable to the people of France whom they are obligated to protect. They'll use the data (selectively, I'm sure) in a way that helps or justifies their own operations. I know there are two approaches to this in Germany: first, refugees themselves are using FB pages to help incoming asylum seekers understand the application procedure, translate docs, etc. - but also to provide helpful pointers on how to understand and engage in German culture (i.e., if you want to stay, try to fit in now, not build mini-communities that isolate them from their surroundings). The government is doing something similar, but their response is slower (otherwise occupied, perhaps) and more generically structured (they treat all refugees the same, ignoring some of the more fundamental concerns amongst the various groups. Really interesting and timely examination of this!

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