Voice from the Industry

Tackling Extremism in the Digital Learning Environment

The Digital Love Hate Relationship
The Internet is an important and empowering tool for schools and students alike, enhancing communication, providing access to information and resources, supporting homework requirements, and so much more. While its advantages are undisputed, its risks are diverse, changing, and often unknown. The dangers posed by the online world can be unforeseeable, and individuals are rarely the best people to judge their own behavior. It's entirely possible, with innocent intentions, to stumble across damaging, exploitative, or extreme content – and damaging, exploitative, or extreme people.

The Growth of Online Risk
The risks presented by the digital world are growing every day, and young people are often naïve to the dangers. These dangers can range from grooming, sexting, cyber bullying, and access to information that could fuel bad decisions (for example, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, violent content), or exposure to extremist content that in some cases can lead to radicalization. Concern for this last risk is on the rise and has received increased media coverage over recent months, especially in light of the Orlando, Florida tragedy, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history carried out by an apparent extremist group member.

What we mean by extremism
Unfortunately, the U.S.A. and many allies have no shortage of those who might be classified as "extremists," from the far right (racist and anti-Semitic hate groups or anti-government extremists) to far left (environmental and animal rights groups) to issue-related (anti-abortion extremists) to movements stemming from ideologies (fanatical religious beliefs, racial superiority beliefs, or radical political views). These groups develop convincing false narratives that can be very appealing to an impressionable young mind, and the Internet provides the perfect platform for sharing these ideologies and recruiting new members from afar.

False narratives are poisonous to developing minds and in certain cases can be deadly. Whether it be a charismatic ISIL, American Front, or Anti-Government Movement recruiter, they all exploit perceived grievances and feelings of alienation among vulnerable young people. This dialogue can be alluring to impressionable teenagers, already receptive to the "us vs. them" mentality.

Exposure to extremist content or dialogue, without counter narratives, can lead to radicalization, and, worryingly, figures show an increase of radicalized young people across the U.S. In 2015 alone, 100 Americans were reported to have left the U.S. to join jihadist groups abroad. (NY Times, 2015)

Tackling the Problem in Schools
Extremism and, in turn, radicalization should be viewed as genuine safety concerns for youth, in the same way we view sexual grooming, bullying, racism, homophobia, and gang violence. A child exposed to extremism may not provoke the same instant sense of horror in adults as the latter, but the dangers posed can be just as devastating.

In a recent article, Seamus Hughes, a former National Counterterrorism Center official now helping to steer George Washington University's research program on extremism, explained, "Education about radicalization should be placed under a larger rubric of Internet safety....Alongside training for teachers about the dangers of being online such as sexting, online bullying and child predators, there could be added a small component on how violent extremists use social media to propagate their message." (The Intercept, 2015)

George Selim, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Community Partnerships, echoed the importance of work educators can do to help in the prevention of radicalization, "Given the current scope of the threat, we believe family members, friends, coaches, and teachers are best placed to potentially prevent and intervene in the process of radicalization." (Reuters, 2016)

In order to tackle extremism, schools need to offer counter narratives, but first they need to understand the nature of the risks posed and the individuals most at risk. Whereas some schools approach Internet safety by simply blocking content that could be deemed a risk, at Impero we promote a monitored approach. By monitoring the activity of students online, issues that might present cause for concern can be flagged and dealt with appropriately, working in harmony with young people to explain the threats and how together we can counter them.

Let's face it: trying to block all content that could be deemed risky is completely unrealistic when nearly 600 new websites are launched daily in the U.S. (Mashable, 2015). It's important to note that monitoring students is not about trying to catch them, get them in trouble, or criminalize individuals. It's about safeguarding. By mentoring students, offering counter narratives and educating them about the risks posed online, schools can create well-informed digital citizens, whether students are in school or out.


Sam Pemberton is the CEO of Impero Software. Working with over 500 school districts across the U.S., Impero is dedicated to safeguarding young people online. Impero's software uses complex algorithms to alert educators if a student uses keywords that may indicate a safeguarding issue, including an interest in violent extremism or ideologies.

These keywords have been developed with leading charities and young people and, when flagged, provide educators with a definition, the context, and a pattern of behavior over time. Critically, this provides an early opportunity to address building issues and provide counter narratives, which can be vital in shaping a young person's developing attitudes. Sam may be reached at info@imperosoftware.com.


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