SFU Burnaby class launches campaign to fight violent extremism online

An SFU criminology professor and cybercrime researcher decided to run one of his classes a little differently this year.

Instead of participating in the usual lectures, discussions and presentations, Richard Frank’s advanced issues in cybercrime class launched a multi-faceted social media campaign to combat violent extremism and radicalization online.

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Rather than taking on extremism head on, however, Voices Against Extremism is aimed at bringing people together and showing we all have more in common than we think.

The campaign’s website and Facebook page, for example, feature a series of “stories of resilience,” not just about refugees and newcomers but anyone who wants to share a story about Canada.

“The idea is to use humanization, education, respect and empowerment to combat the message of violent extremism, which is ‘you are different, we are different; therefore, we must not co-exist,’” student Nathaniel Lam told the NOW.

On the campaign’s Instagram feed, meanwhile, you’ll find photos of cute animals under the hashtag #animalsagainstextremism.

These warm and fuzzy initiatives may seem ill suited to take on ISIS and other groups looking to radicalize people online, but they’re not, according to Frank.

“You can say, ‘ISIS sucks,’” he said “but this is a completely different approach. … The feedback from the law enforcement agencies that we were talking to, their experience has been that the community needs to accept new people. If they’re accepted, they tend not to become radicalized. People that are left on the boundaries, they get radicalized.”

Frank said the initiative gives voice to the silent majority that welcomes newcomers.

This is the first time the SFU prof has centred his class on a hands-on campaign instead of more traditional class activities.

An international contest put on by Facebook and the U.S. State Department called P2P (Peer to Peer): Challenging Extremism, was a catalyst.

And five students and Frank are now travelling to Hamburg, Germany for an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional contest Dec. 7 and 8.

“This competition was a perfect thing to motivate the entire class,” Frank said. “There was a lot of energy, there was a lot of discussion, there was a lot of creativity, and they gained a lot of real-world skills that they’re happy with, I’m happy with. There was a lot of community engagement.”

Lam agreed.

“It’s a class that wasn’t the typical top-down hierarchy classroom format,” he said. “It’s not like you go to a lecture and you listen to a professor talk. You don’t go to class and come home and only read academic articles and write papers. We were hands-on.”

For more information about Voices Against Extremism, visit www.voicesagainstexremism.ca.

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