Crowdsourcing Dystopia

Violent extremism starts with an idea and an entrepreneur.

On offer is a belief system that promises to upend the status quo, to change the world and take you with it. Investors commit at different levels from different places, but everyone involved belongs to a unified cause. Once in, you’re a team of heroic proportions, larger than life.

Kickstarter is a modern example of a global community — a crowdfunding platform that sticks to the life-affirming values of the original World Wide Web. By connecting like-minded individuals across the globe, the company has generated creative prosperity.

Violent extremists use a similar business plan for the exact opposite: peer-to-peer recruitment that transforms life into human debris. They skillfully exploit their global networks to crowdsource a radical worldview, then scale it with local grievances.

The only way to stop it is to offer a better vision and scale it with life chances. Ideas are critical, but even more so is the ability to execute on these chances at every opportunity. We must move first if we want to truly fight violent extremism, and we have to do more than compete — we must dominate this space.

Government Can’t Save Us

Policy wonks the world over are trying to figure out how to understand the local/global connection in violent extremism, especially the role of the Internet. Little research exists at this point, but here is a general outline. The three “P’s” of extremism are:

  1. a permissive environment (poverty, exclusion)
  2. a precipitating event (violence, disappointment, disaster)
  3. a push (a recruiter, a peer)

Military and law enforcement strategies to fight extremism are important. After all, ISIS and Boko Haram have armies on the ground. But as policy goes, anything with the word “counter” in front of it will be limited. Why? Because official presence is stigmatizing. It signals a response mode, that “someone’s in trouble.”

Over time, the only actions that can beat extremists to the punch will come from communities, families, peers and social networks. The preventive solutions for violent Islamism are not going to be found by non-Muslims, for example.

While outsiders can play supportive roles, they can’t be the primary change agents. In the end, the only way to fully contain extremist violence is to engage marginalized individuals and build a resilient society, i.e. one that keeps the permissive environment from arising in the first place.

Muslim-majority Indonesia has been an exemplary success on this front. Its prevention strategy is culturally integrated (pop stars have written three Top 10 hits!). Educators convene public discussions where individuals can vent about global politics.

The country’s coordinated media strategy immediately delegitimizes extremism and amplifies the voices of credible alternatives. This kind of positive national identity maintenance makes the extremism worldview unacceptable. Most research on what’s called “counter narrative” supports these bottom-up methods.

After communities, the most important contributions to stemming violence will come from those who can connect, include and be nimble: the socially-aware private sector, agile non-governmental organizations and high-impact individuals.

At a recent meeting, a Defense Department participant laid out the challenge: “We get a request for help, we go to the state officials, we embed ourselves with the people who the population perceives as the bad guys…we become the bad guys.”

Governments, the United Nations, The World Bank and other last-century internationalists are facing the same dilemma. No conventional outside organization has the peer-to-peer networks or the ideological buy-in to compete with the extremists. No state-sponsored entity can act quickly enough. Moreover, government affiliation in fragile, risky places is negative and often targeted.

So What Can Our Government Do?

International assistance to reduce poverty is an absolute good, and the right thing to do. But it’s not enough. As a nation, the U.S. can accelerate promising ideas that come from localities, we can publish and convene and give technical help.

We can lead by example through our own civic life. We can both criticize and improve the good things about our own democracy. We can also follow a “do no harm” foreign aid strategy. Exclusionary, predatory governments drive extremism. Wealthy lender nations should not empower them.

Governments are implementing good ideas: Nigeria recently created an education office to promote critical thinking skills. Helping young people discern and evaluate information is vital for combating the us versus them narrow-mindedness of extremism.

Somalia appointed six female prosecutors; Morocco is training female spiritual guides to provide an alternative to extremist beliefs. Inclusion requires a tolerance for uncertainty and a willingness to govern more openly. We can encourage this progress.

From the peace-building community to the Republican Chair of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, all agree that we need to think more strategically about prevention.

What Can The Rest Of Us Do?

To prevent extremism from taking hold, either online or off, we’ll need whole societies to interact more broadly and deeply. Violent extremism isn’t going to be fixed by a thunderclap of Gandhi quotes or a hashtag. These tools can make ideas visible, but the rest requires showing up in person.

The good news is that young people want to engage in this way. Google and Harvard recently completed a study on “Interested Bystanders,” individuals who are aware and tech savvy, but have not yet found ways to be involved.

Like all technologies, the Internet is just a tool. It can be used for good and bad purposes.

Understanding the online role in recruitment to extremism will continue. As the UAE-funded Hedayah points out, not much is known about social media as a baseline for analysis. But there are many places to start. Modern news organizations have teams of data scientists looking at ways to attract, engage and convert. Journalism has a civic mission. Its research moves beyond “likes and shares.”

For example, “like” counts are always higher than “view” counts. Word-tagging misses context. Mobile users are not as invested or loyal as people using computers. Automation can help us accelerate and discover, but it can’t replace empathy and quality time.

In the end, the human engagement part of online information sharing doesn’t have exact metrics. It makes sense. We know that what counts for marketing data does not match democratic values like protecting public goods or caring deeply about the suffering of others.

To prevent violent extremism, we also need to account for what gets missed, what cannot be measured and who takes action.

Civic technology is helping communities stick together. Do citizens want responsive government and local control? Tech-savvy Smart Cities are building this opportunity. Ushahidi is a crowdsourced information management platform. Non-profit Mozilla champions an open system and views public generosity as mission critical to our online future.

Both government and the rest of us need to recalibrate our social media strategy against extremism. First, reduce the national security focus of government efforts, and concentrate more on civic engagement and education. Using image, text, video and sound, social media should be a full court press to undermine extremist propaganda.

Mary McKinley of Minnesota’s Heartland Democracy works with Somali diaspora civic groups. “What we are realizing is that these kids are obviously so disconnected, that it makes them vulnerable, and that once they find something to connect with, it’s something radically bad like ISIS,” she says.

Haqqathons and culture-sharing platforms like LaunchGood are promising. But these participants are not the ones McKinley worries about. The kids she works with travel a road of alienation between immigrant parents and the urban mall. Integrating violence-prevention strategies into education should be a priority, she notes.

Social cohesion is like a civic safety net. It depends on a support system of trust and common expectations. It provides a place to be included in the short and long term.

Despite the daily headlines about extremism, the non-profit organizations who are preventing the permissive environment, disrupting recruitment networks and providing an alternative worldview often fall between the cracks of philanthropy.

This must change if we expect a sustained effort on prevention. Kiva’s social performance metrics provide a good starting point.

Cue Silicon Valley: Violent extremism is a malevolent version of crowdsourcing. Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are opportunistic, participatory, agile, adaptable, seductive and real-time. They are toxic, lean startups that must be countered with similar tactics that allow vulnerable populations to participate in a meaningful future from where they sit.

Think of it as a global DevOps challenge — software and process that is built to facilitate human dignity. We need new turnaround strategies and ideas. Most of all, we need the skilled individuals who can execute on them as opportunities arise.

Let’s dominate this space. The reward will be bigger than any IPO you can imagine.