Dr Akil Awan has appeared in front of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications and was taking part into the government's inquiry Children and the Internet to give evidence on young people's political use of the Internet. Several other high-profile companies and individuals have spoken to the inquiry, including representatives from Google, Facebook, the BBC, Ofcom and Sky.
In a wide ranging discussion, Dr Awan spoke on the risks, challenges and opportunities that the Internet and in particular, immersion in social media and web 2.0 platforms posed to young people. On the subject of online radicalisation, he suggested that "the idea of online radicalisation as being the most important issue facing us has largely been debunked in academia; there aren't any real cases of completely autonomous online radicalisation. Children live in real worlds. In online and offline worlds simultaneously, so it's a bit like pathologising the internet [to say it's responsible for radicalising children]."
However, he also recognised the role the Internet had played in enabling the growth of violent extremism by providing spaces online that cocooned audiences from alternative viewpoints. These echo chambers then allowed the circulation of extremist ideologies without being challenged or contested, and were conducive to the growth of political radicalism. He pointed to the recent US presidential election as an important example of the effectiveness of these sorts of spaces, pointing to the proliferation and circulation of patently false news on Facebook, which had contributed in part to the creation of a ‘post-factual’ politics.
When asked by the committee, what more the ICT industry could do to monitor and prevent access to extremist material, he argued that “there are a whole host of things we might do that are not necessarily about censoring content and online spaces, but rather about how young people engage with them. That is the key. We have to think about the role schools play in developing critical thinking and young people’s abilities, and teaching them methods and skills so that they can weigh evidence and contextualise the knowledge they receive, and engage with it in a much more sophisticated and nuanced way. That is fundamental. It involves digital literacy and media literacy, too.”
He also argued that schools had a role to play in other ways by teaching students history and politics, such as the Crusades or colonialism, in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way, so that when they encountered very tendentious, skewed and polarised views of the world or history online, they were equipped with the tools and their own internal resource to challenge and contest these ideas at in any way. It would almost be like providing some kind of inoculation against very poisonous messages.
He also suggested that “schools should do more to promote progressive and inclusive ideas of citizenship, belonging and civic identity. We tend to think that political socialisation begins when children turn 18, but it does not; it is a continuous process. If someone feels that the Iraq war was unjust and carried out for ulterior motives, you might not be able to change their mind cognitively but you might teach them how they might respond politically. Teach them that there are other ways. Teach them political socialisation and how they might be part of their community and the political process. That can be quite helpful. If you teach those sorts of things at school, you are dealing with some of the problems quite early on.”
When asked to assess the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, he suggested that the Prevent duty and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, had become unworkable and was now considered a toxic brand in the communities it desperately need to have on board for it to work. He also argued that the Prevent duty which creates a statutory duty for those in the public sector to spot the early signs of radicalisation had been quite problematic for all sorts of reasons, particularly for children. He said, “there has not been sufficient training of those in the public sector about how they might spot the signs of radicalisation, whatever that might mean. Just before I came, I printed off the Government’s vulnerability assessment framework, which is one of the things they use to identify the signs of radicalisation; I want to refer to four that relate to young people in particular. One is being at a transitional time of life; another is a need for identity, meaning and belonging; another is a desire for excitement and adventure; and another is a desire for political or moral change. There are others, but those things could apply not only to every student in this country but to every child on the planet. When there is such a broad swathe of risk factors, or things that might predispose you to recognise a radical, it becomes almost nonsensical. We have seen a number of referrals under Prevent, and they do not get followed through, because we are talking about false positives. And really what we are doing then, is looking at markers of religiosity, and often ethnic-based, which is one of the reasons why the National Union of Students has refused to implement Prevent.”
He further argued that “young people need to be allowed to explore ideas, particularly at university. There is now a statutory duty on university lecturers like myself to report anything that could tick some of those boxes, but universities are supposed to be safe spaces in which you can explore ideas, and make mistakes politically and ideologically. There is the famous adage that if you are not a radical when you are young you have no soul, and if you are still a radical when you are old you have no sense. That is part of our political socialisation. We go through that process as young people.”
You can watch the session in full here.