News & Views

How Dr. Erin Marie Saltman Counters Online Extremism

by Chloe Markowicz

As the number of people fighting for Islamic State increases at an alarming pace, Chloe Markowicz speaks to Dr. Erin Marie Saltman of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue about how the London-based think tank is working with creatives and technology giants to counter violent extremism.

This is an excerpt of a piece published in Issue 43 of Contagious Magazine. Saltman will be speaking on the topic at Most Contagious 2015, December 9 in London. Tickets available at

More than 20,000 foreigners have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamic State over the past three years. Approximately 3,400 of those hail from Western countries. One organisation is endeavouring to reach out to young people before they get anywhere near the battlefield. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is using story­telling and a data-driven approach to target people at risk of joining radical organisations. Dr Erin Marie Saltman, senior counter extremism researcher, explains how the institute is tackling online radicalisation.

Why do you work so closely with the tech sector?

The new frontline for a lot of the threat, or where we perceive a lot of communication of extremist propaganda, is online. Especially when you look at Islamic State, you see tons of flashy media propaganda in languages from around the world. They have upped their marketing capacity and the counter-extremism sector has to acknowledge that. We need to do something instead of censorship, which can not only infringe on freedom of speech, but also doesn’t work online. You can take down a website and it comes up the next day. We need to go beyond that and undermine their narrative. That’s when you need creativity and the voice of civil society to be put forward in a more appropriate and fashionable way.

Can you give me some examples of how Islamic State has mastered online propaganda?

Islamic State is really a game changer. Unlike other terrorist organisations, they allow for decentralised messengers. They allow their foreign fighters to tweet; they allow the jihadists to have blog accounts. So you have people who have their own voice and put the ideology forward in different ways. But IS also have their own centralised and well-paid-for media. They have glossy monthly magazines with pictures, in about eight different languages. They have high-definition YouTube videos that show Jihadists in the back of Toyotas with the sunset in the background. These things look more like rap music videos than traditional Jihadist propaganda.

What can you do to counter that propaganda?

We work with governments to develop education programmes to prevent young people from being lured by this in the first place. We show content in classrooms to help create digital literacy and critical consumption skills, so that when a young person comes across extremist propaganda, instead of just consuming it, they take a second to question it.

That is done through the voice of civil society. I’m not a credible messenger, you are not a credible messenger and the government is definitely not a credible messenger. It’s like your dad telling you not to take drugs. That is not going to stop you. So we work with a large group of former extremists and victims of extremism, and we have made a series of videos around their stories. These are personal, emotional tales of former neo-fascists who were part of violent movements, or of a mother whose son went off to Syria and died fighting. It is not just about Islamist extremist material. This is about violent extremism and making the youth less susceptible to that type of propaganda.

What’s the best time to reach out to people who are in danger of becoming violent extremists?

It depends. That prevention [in classrooms] is en masse for young people. So you might not be showing a symptom of radicalisation but it is still useful for you to have this kind of education programme. When we start seeing people who maybe show a tendency for extremist violence through their online profiles, that is when we do more targeted counter-narrative campaigning. That is when we can work with the tech sector and creatives. We create videos, websites and campaigns and actually do targeted marketing. We can market these narratives at individuals so that they come up in top Google search results, so that the advertisements come up through Facebook, through YouTube. The problem is that when young people have questions about geopolitics or the Assad government, they don’t know who to ask. A lot of the time, the person putting forward the strongest argument is the extremist voice. By putting a different narrative out there, you can penetrate that so that there is not just one choice.

How do you get people to pay attention to your message?

A counter narrative relies on the platform, the message and the messenger. Those three really need to work well together for your target audience to actually want to click on it and watch it. We’ve learned a lot from failures in this space. One example of a counter narrative that really didn’t hit the mark would be the US State Department’s Think Again, Turn Away campaign. It was on Twitter, which was the right platform, it was the right message, but it was the wrong messenger. If people see that the State Department is trying to counter the message, they’re not going to listen.

Most Contagious 2015 Report