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New study shows how PH extremist groups use social media to recruit

Pia Ranada
New study shows how PH extremist groups use social media to recruit
Recruitment efforts and violent extremist messaging are organic and localized, and exploit 'hot button' issues like the Mindanao peace process and alleged military abuses, according to a study

MANILA, Philippines – A new study details how extremist groups in the Philippines use social media to identify possible new recruits and spread extremist beliefs.

The study, “Understanding Violent Extremism: Message and Recruitment Strategies on Social Media in the Philippines,” was presented on Thursday, December 13, in Pasig City. It is a joint project of The Asia Foundation (TAF) and Rappler.

The study found that most of the violent extremist activities online are opportunistic, unsophisticated, and make use of offline connections. Extremist messaging online, meanwhile, are “hyperlocal,” meaning they tap into grievances arising from issues in the municipal or provincial level in order to create support for their extremist cause.

“We did not find any evidence of an organized, structured campaign. It’s much more organic, more local,” said Gemma Mendoza, head of research and content strategy for Rappler during the presentation of the study.

The study involved a 4-month social media network analysis by Rappler of Facebook groups prominent in Mindanao. Four focus group discussions were conducted in Cotabato City, Zamboanga City, Iligan City, and Manila, involving 122 participants aged 18 to 35 years old and who are all active on Facebook. There were also interviews with experts and individuals who personally experienced online violent extremism.

The findings also came with a set of recommendations for national government, local governments, academe, social media platforms, and religious leaders in how to combat violent extremism given the nature of how it is spread online.

3 recruitment methods

There are 3 ways social media is used to recruit individuals to violent extremist groups, found the study. (READ: How to fight ISIS on social media)

  • Online recruitment leveraging offline connections – A recruiter sends a Facebook message to a person they already know from their local community networks.
  • Online recruitment through digital communities – A recruiter sends messages to members of a closed special-interest group. The recruiter may be a stranger to these people, but he or she relies on the loose connection that comes with shared interests or belonging to a niche.
  • Online recruitment targeting sympathetic strangers – A recruiter visits a public page or group and joins in online discussions on politics or other issues that can be used to share sympathies with violent extremist groups. When a recruiter sees a user who appears supportive of their cause, they message them privately.

The study focused on Facebook groups because it is the social media platform most used by Muslim Filipinos since it can be accessed for free. 

A “Social Conversion Funnel” developed by Rappler shows how recruitment efforts begin in open and searchable platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and then proceed to correspondences via messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and Viber.

Later on in the conversion or recruitment process, encrypted messaging apps like Telegram are used for sending anonymous and more sensitive messages before physical contact.

Messaging exploits local grievances

Violent extremist messaging online exploited grievances over specific local issues to influence netizens against the government and military.

“Sometimes the local grievances are used as a trigger by extremist groups to question them (government) and there’s very little evidence that local governments have the skills and expertise to be able to positively respond,” said TAF country representative for the Philippines Sam Chittick.

Extremist messaging was most often seen in the form of comments in threads relating to big news articles about the Bangsamoro peace process or other Mindanao issues.

The study identified specific “hot button” issues often referenced in violent extremist content to gain traction and radicalize persons online.

These hot button issues are:

  • The futility of the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
  • MILF leaders, including late founder Hashim Salamat and current leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, as kafir or infidels
  • Debate across Islamic theological lines, and discrimination against Muslims at work and in school
  • Alleged human rights violations committed by soldiers in perennially war-torn provinces

Part of the conversation

The findings led TAF and Rappler to come up with a list of recommendations which involve timely and nuanced responses to online extremist messaging. 

There was a suggestion for Muslim religious leaders to be more active online and to correct misguided interpretations of Islam being spread on social media.

The same active online engagement must be done by the MILF and local governments.

“The digitally-active youth are not familiar with the nuances in these issues. Those who can provide the nuances are not in these spaces. It’s about being there and being able to respond when those messages are posted,” said Mendoza.

Derkie Alfonso, TAF’s program manager for Mindanao, emphasized that the best solution is to be found offline – good governance. (READ: 681 barangays to undergo anti-violent extremism training)

“The best messaging is good governance. No amount of messaging will counter good delivery of services, taking care of the people,” Alfonso said.

Other recommendations include improved digital literacy training by universities and harnessing the upcoming plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.