(Featured Image Source: EUnited against Extremism Facebook page)
From the 24th to the 28th of June 2016, the “EUnited against Extremism” team from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium competed in Washington DC in the Peer 2 Peer Global Competition to challenge extremism, sponsored by the United States State Department and Facebook. In this competition, University students from around the world develop and execute campaigns and social media strategies against extremism that are credible, authentic, and believable to their peers and resonate within their communities. Of the 45 participating teams, the six finalists were invited to present their work at the State Department in Washington DC.
Eventually, EUnited received third place in the Facebook competition, with the joint winners from the Netherlands and Afghanistan ahead of them. After the competition the EUnited team also took part in a State Department-sponsored International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), in which they – together with the teams from Khazar University (Azerbaijan), Vesalius College (Belgium), and Utrecht University (The Netherlands) – traveled to Washington, DC, New York, and San Francisco to learn more about countering violent extremism (CVE) and social media. The nine members of the ‘EUnited’ team, who come from across Europe, are from the Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies (Lucie-Belle Dissirier, Thomas Adam, Andrew Chapman, David Delavier, Andrej Misech, Evangjelia Sali, Ioannis Skiadaresis) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies (Paul Patron and Edyta Skora). Only part of the team was able to travel to the United States.
The United States Mission to the European Union’s (USEU) press team had the opportunity to ask the College of Europe’s faculty advisor, Sara Hurtekant, a number of questions concerning the EUnited against Extremism project, the Peer 2 Peer competition, and the team’s visit to the United States.
How did you find out about the Peer 2 Peer challenging extremism competition?
The International Relations and Diplomacy Department of the College of Europe was contacted by Mr. Tony Sgro of EdVenture Partners in the fall of 2015. He wanted to involve more European universities and academic institutions into the P2P project “Challenging Violent Extremism.” The initiative seemed very interesting and highly relevant shortly after the Paris attacks of November 2015. After an initial inquiry with the students, it seemed that they shared this enthusiasm and eventually the College of Europe team was established. We created the ‘EUnited against extremism’ project, ranking second in the Facebook competition for the 2016 Spring edition of the P2P project “Challenging Violent Extremism.”
Could you briefly summarize your project?
We decided that, even before considering a campaign, we needed to educate ourselves on the topic. We conducted extensive research on radicalization and how people eventually get caught up in violent extremism. We decided to focus on the quick radicalization process that ISIL uses to lure foreign fighters to Syria.
From this research we distilled the concept of the online ‘seduction cycle;’ ISIL offers an easy answer to men and women who feel disconnected or alienated from their surroundings for different personal reasons. It all starts the moment you show any interest in websites or pages linked to ISIL; you suddenly receive dozens of likes and new friend requests on Facebook, a sort of ‘love-bombing.’ After this, the seduction becomes more personal; ISIL connects you with someone with the same age group, sex and nationality — someone you can easily relate to. They listen to your grievances and eventually create “this friend” who is already in ISIL-controlled territory. They promise everything that that specific person is missing at the time: love through an arranged marriage, a sense of purpose by fighting for a cause, a sense of belonging. By going through this cycle, many people have found themselves in ISIL-controlled territory more quickly than anyone could have imagined.
Based on this seduction cycle, we decided to develop our campaign ‘EUnited against extremism’ with our slogan ‘Don’t flirt with extremism.’ Our campaign consists of two strategies. First of all, our online strategy included a social network campaign via Facebook and Twitter. We released our video called “#SwipeLeft” (see below), that visualizes the seduction cycle applied to a young British man who was saved by the intervention of a friend at a crucial moment in this cycle. Next, we released different articles on the danger of the radicalization process and violent extremism on both our Facebook and Twitter pages. Our video got picked up by some major European news sites and quickly went viral with over 74.000 views. Our total online strategy eventually reached over 600.000 people.
Our second strategy focused on offline communication through the means of an educational project. It consists of creating human libraries in universities throughout Europe. By inviting former radicalized persons, the representatives of the local Muslim community of Bruges, Syrian students, and Syrian refugees, our Human Library project aims at making people exchange on extremism, in a safe and personal environment in order to know what radicalization is (and what it isn’t) and how one can prevent it.
Why do you think your team was selected to go to Washington?
Our EUnited team has one particularity, which is also an inherent part of the College of Europe, where the campaign was founded: it is truly European. We have six different nationalities in our team: we come from Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Albania, France and the UK. We were able to incorporate all these different perceptions from across Europe into our project. Studying at the College of Europe taught us to overcome national differences and live together; countering violent extremism requires the same dedication to transnational cooperation.
Moreover, we paid a great amount of attention to delivering a positive message: raising awareness about the inexistent of a single profile of a radicalized person and empowering friends and relatives to intervene when they feel their loved ones slipping away.
How was your experience attending the Peer2Peer conference?
The experience of going to Washington and presenting in front of an audience of experts was everything all at once: exciting, nerve-racking, invigorating, frightening and mind-blowing. Since our team was selected to compete in the Facebook competition, we had the opportunity of observing the presentations of the other teams at the State Department competition. We were thoroughly impressed with both the creativity as well as versatility; all the projects approached the subject from a completely different angle but all proved to be very effective in reaching their target audience and in igniting a change for the better.
The day after the State Department competition, we finally had the opportunity to present our project in the Facebook competition. We weren’t able to watch all of the other presentations, but we quickly realized that we had some very strong competition: a 15-person strong delegation from the Netherlands, a wonderful team from Spain, and the virtual participation of a team from Afghanistan that is battling radicalization on ground zero. Eventually we ranked second place, with a shared first place for the team from the Netherlands and Afghanistan. Overall the experience was extremely enriching. By having open dialogues with experts in the fields but also by talking to other teams and what challenges and opposition they faced during their projects, we have managed to gain new insights and experiences that we can take into the continuation of our project.
What was most striking about the various approaches to fighting violent extremism through social media?
Utilizing social media to develop a CVE campaign is an outstanding way to reach millennials, all of them digital-natives, who are most prone to being radicalized through social media. Our project primarily utilizes Facebook and Twitter. Facebook has proved its use for reaching a large number of viewers of our videos and articles, and enabling lively discussions on the topic matter. We were able to reach this large audience thanks to Facebook Ad credit, which we employed for reaching people in our target countries. The most challenging aspect was the difficulty to provide ‘easy answers’ regarding ambiguities in our provoking video. The video was created both as a teaser — to lure people to our Facebook page to find more information — and as a tool to visualize that the seduction cycle can affect anyone, proving that there is no single profile for a person at risk of radicalization. This stirred up a large debate and managing all the responses and questions proved to be very time-consuming.
We used Twitter to reach out to people with more specialized profiles regarding radicalization and countering violent extremism such as scholars, activists, journalists, and politicians. Twitter has proved useful for reaching these individuals and for sharing our video. However, reaching out to a large number of people, more specifically to reach our target audience, is a more arduous and time-consuming task on Twitter than it is on Facebook.
Is there a next step for your project?
Our EUnited team is committed to expanding the project both online and offline. We will continue to share articles and content about countering extremism on our Facebook page “EUnited against extremism,” because we believe that sharing the right narratives as much as we can is one way to tackle these important issues. The world, and Europe specifically, is in dire need of a more positive message related to tackling violent extremism. We want to be part of the solution.
As the next part of our online campaign, we are planning to organize another Human Library on the 13th of November 2016, the first anniversary of the Paris attacks. We will do so in order to not only commemorate the lives lost, but also to motivate people to talk — in the wake of the Orlando and Nice attacks — about the processes behind these vile acts of terrorism. We are planning to do this in cooperation with the city of Brussels and want to try to make this event happen in Molenbeek.
Additionally, we will have the chance to deepen our contacts with the United Nations during the following months. We want to explore the options of a partnership in order to make the project thrive on a larger scale. All options are on the table and we want to coordinate our project together with the other P2P finalists that we met during our amazing experience in Washington. You will definitely hear more of us soon!
(The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily correspond with those of the U.S. Mission to the European Union or the U.S. State Department).