“The Other Side!”, one of the participants of the Erbil Digital Workforce (EDW) calls out. “That should be the title of our campaign. For example, The Other Side of Fear…of Anger…of Extremism”. Half the group cheer in agreement, the other participants make discontented faces. “Not strong enough, too poetic’, says one of them. The training in Persuasive Storytelling and Online Radicalisation in Erbil, organised by RNTC’s Managing Director, Brandon Oelofse, is coming to end. After ten days of intensive training, with a focus on storytelling, campaigning, alternative messaging and preventing online radicalisation, the 20 participants of the EDW need to agree on the title of their first campaign.
A tool for propaganda
In recent years political, religious and violent extremists have utilised the internet, particularly social media, as tool for recruitment, propaganda or spreading hate. Research has shown that any strategy intending to prevent or counter (online) radicalisation must create an environment whereby the production and consumption of such materials becomes, not only less accessible in a technical sense, but less acceptable socially.
YouTube, who has come under fire in the past for not doing enough to remove disturbing content that violates local laws or promotes terrorism, argues against relying solely on censorship. During a conference on countering violent extremism, YouTube pressed upon online, media ‘influencers’ to drown out Islamic State and other extremist organisations with “better messages, with reasonable messages”.
A digital workforce
That’s exactly what the EDW has in mind. Supported by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the programme is designed to nurture campaigning and storytelling skills of future leaders to create positive change. Since the beginning of the year, 20 young, male and female participants have been receiving training from experts from a range of professional backgrounds, such campaigning and de-radicalisation programmes. They are working together to develop new, innovative digital/online campaigns to counter and prevent violent extremist campaigns by offering genuine, alternative paths or solutions for young people that explicitly reject violence.
The skills and experiences the EDW participants will gain throughout the programme can be transferred to a range of different career paths, such as IT, communications, media and social media fields. Additionally, the programme will provide them with one-to-one career mentoring. This is essential in Iraq, where around 50% of the population is under the age of 19, with the unemployment rate among youth (15-24 years) at approximately 18%. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, large numbers of young people graduate from higher education institutions, yet struggle to enter the job market without work experience.
As the final training day draws to a close, the participants still have yet to agree on their campaign slogan. “‘Don’t Get Pumped‘ – that’s the perfect name for our campaign”, shouts one EDW member. Her group agrees and begins to lobby the others immediately. A vote is needed to make the final decision. Don’t Get Pumped becomes the winner, meaning ‘don’t explode, be cool’. For the young people, this slogan conveys their central message perfectly. Their next task will be to utilise their skills to create a campaign plan, with deadlines, communication tools, and deliverables. They will lead their networks with alternative options to radicalisation and violent extremism in the region.
The overall objective of the EDW is to counter (online) radicalisation of young men and women and contribute to an environment which builds young people’s resilience, paves the way for a future workforce and subsequently diminishes the risk of future radicalisation and violent extremism.