On The Ground

Battle for young hearts and minds as extremists grow savvy online

Experts noted that extremists have displayed a savvy in tapping online trends and emerging platforms to spread their ideology to young people.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A 17-year-old detained under the Internal Security Act in January last year had begun to walk down the path of radicalisation in 2017 when he was aged 15, after imbibing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) material online.

Last December, a 16-year-old became the youngest detainee yet to be dealt with under the ISA, and the first to be enthralled by far-right extremist ideology.

What was striking was the similar methods by which these two cases came to be self-radicalised - by exclusivist propaganda material that painted the world in stark, us-versus-them terms.

They are the latest in an emerging pattern of those being dealt with for terror-linked activity getting younger.

Since 2015, seven of the 53 people that the Internal Security Department picked up for terror-related conduct were aged between 16 and 19.

All had been radicalised online and each was a prime target for recruitment by extremists due to their young age, experts said.

They noted that extremists have displayed a savvy in tapping online trends and emerging platforms to spread their ideology to young people.

For instance, far-right extremists in the West have used chatrooms on messaging platform Discord - popular with young gamers - to spread their message, said Mr Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman, a homeland defence research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) .

Meanwhile, ISIS has several teams to manufacture its propaganda in multiple languages and shares content "on every social media imaginable", said vice-chairman of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) Dr Mohamed Ali.

Newer platforms such as TikTok and Instagram have become the terror group's main form of outreach, especially after its so-called caliphate in the Middle East fell.

"They lost their military capabilities, their territory, their finances, so they now stage an ideological battle," he said. "And that is the battle that we are losing."

Both ISIS and far-right groups employ utopian, black-and-white narratives and present them in ways that appeal to the young, such as with dramatic editing and martial music, said experts.

ISIS, for instance, paints a romanticised vision of itself, portraying the group as an underdog that youths can rally behind to struggle against oppressors, said ISD.

Such delusions of grandeur or even 'heroism' could be enticing to impressionable youths hungering for a sense of purpose and affirmation, said clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet.

"These young people are so naive, they don't realise what's ahead of them. The idea of being a hero to contribute to and help save these groups is attractive to them, it makes them believe that they are in a dream, that they are invincible," said Dr Balhetchet, who has counselled teens for over 20 years.

Dr Mohamed explained that youths who fall prey to radicalisation usually have a basic level of education and a shallower understanding of things, which makes them susceptible to propaganda online, he said.

Psychological reasons are a factor as well, he added, such as discontentment with their surroundings and a lack of sense of belonging, which can push youths down a slippery slope of radicalisation.

ISD said an inability to think critically can affect how one perceives certain world events or developments and plays a part as well.

But the battle against extremism for young hearts and minds is not lost, and a whole-of-society response has been mounted involving workshops about the threat of online radicalisation and building critical thinking skills .

Speaking in Parliament last week, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said the best line of defence is to ensure people here, including the young, understand what the right teachings are so they are not swayed by radical and extremist views.

On the education front, school teachers work with parents and the wider community to instil values in students, and ensure that those vulnerable to the influence of extremist propaganda are detected early so they can be helped.

"If there are concerns that a student has been influenced by extremist propaganda, schools work closely with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to closely monitor and provide counselling support to the student. Our school counsellors work closely with teachers to look out for students who show signs of distress and possible radicalisation," said a Ministry of Education spokesman.

Underpinning this are efforts in schools like Character and Citizenship Education, where students engage in various learning activities to help them better understand threats that Singapore faces, including terrorism.

Students also go through cyber wellness education to become more discerning and aware of online disinformation, so that they can verify the credibility of online content and information sources.

Counsellors also play an important mentoring role, and MHA has been conducting workshops for school counsellors since 2016 to sensitise students to online threats, as well as deepen their understanding of terrorist ideologies and to spot tell-tale signs of radicalisation.

Such efforts to prevent youths from being led astray must be augmented with positive peer influence, given the life stage they are at, said experts.

Said Mr Faizal: "Youth are in a stage where they want more privacy and may be sceptical of authority figures such as parents and official sources. We need to find ways to better harness positive peer influence both offline and online to protect them from online harms."