You may have been following the recent harrowing reports from the Manchester Arena Inquiry which have highlighted the importance of vigilance from all of us to the risk of terrorism. This risk has not gone away, and the national threat level is currently “Substantial” and in Northern Ireland it is “Severe”.
Over the last few years there has been a steep increase in the amount of terrorist content online and an increased involvement of very young people.
As a result of the pandemic, many young people have spent more time online, unsupervised, during a period when they are feeling isolated from their peers and anxious about a range of issues including health, finances, missed schooling and future prospects. Combined with a lack of support and oversight from protective influences such as school, friends and family, these factors have, according to the Neil Basu, Head of Counter Terrorism Policing, created a “perfect storm” which increases the vulnerability of young people to radicalisation and could have long term consequences.
In just 18 months up to the end of June 2020, 17 children were arrested in the UK in relation to terrorism offences, some only 14 years old. According to the new dedicated safeguarding website (www.actearly.uk) nearly all will have been radicalised entirely online. This involvement of such young children is a new trend which was non-existent just a few years previously.
The pandemic has been exploited by extremists of all kinds, as we have seen from the proliferation of conspiracy theories ranging from anti-vaccine, anti-establishment to anti-minority and antisemitic which were used by the Far Right, Far Left and Islamists to further their own ideological aims. There has also been a spate of disinformation spread online to incite hatred, violence and to divide communities. This includes disinformation about Muslims, Jews and Chinese people. Attempts by extremists to create a sense of belonging to an in-group and place blame on an out-group can be appealing to young people who feel isolated or unhappy or dissatisfied with their situation.
Extremists target the types of online platforms and gaming sites which are popular with young people. They use gamification, pop culture and insider jokes to appeal to them and they are adept at presenting content via memes, cartoons, jokes and gamer terminology to avoid detection by moderators. TikTok, Instagram and Discord are sites which have been implicated in radicalisation online and the organisation, Hope Not Hate, describes Instagram as the platform of choice for propaganda and recruiting young people to extreme right-wing groups.
Schools have an important role to play both in educating young people about tolerance, equality and inclusivity and in spotting the signs of radicalisation. They can help develop children’s resilience to radicalisation by increasing their digital literacy. This includes developing the skills to be discriminating consumers of online content, with an awareness of how to assess the accuracy of information they see and of the techniques that may be used by radicalisers to manipulate their emotions and to create a divisive or hateful narrative. Gooseberry Planet’s lessons address these issues and our June Guru video provides detailed background information about online radicalisation and how young people are targeted. Our free Fake News YouTube video also provides useful information about recognising disinformation.
Schools can also help by explaining the Prevent strategy to parents and carers. For the year ending March 2020, 31% of all Prevent referrals came from the education sector but according to the Act Early website, the people best able to identify signs of potential radicalisation are family and friends. Currently just 2% of Prevent referrals come from this group. Schools can reassure parents that Prevent is, as the name suggests, a preventative programme which provides positive support for those who consent to take part in it. Referrals are confidential and do not result in a criminal record or any other form of sanction. Prevent can help address educational, vocational, mental health and other vulnerabilities. Ultimately it might save both the young person concerned as well as many others.