Education and Awareness Are Key to Stopping Online Radicalization

Singapore continues to counter violent extremism online by increasing technology security. The new Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act enables the government to direct online communication services to disable local access to harmful content. This includes content that advocates violent extremism. However, Singapore, like other nations, needs to increase community resources to fight the spread of online extremism.

One major commonality between these two cases was the deep influence of Naik, a radical preacher originally from India. Naik has been accused by the Indian government of inciting hatred, supporting terrorism and facilitating money laundering. He is barred from entering Singapore due to his extremist teachings. However, he was granted permanent residency in Malaysia, avoiding extradition to India. He has a massive audience on the internet, including 23 million followers on Facebook. Preachers like Naik are exploiting social media to influence young people. While the new online safety act potentially allows Singapore to block organizations and individuals like Naik, it’s impossible to fully sanitize social media and other information sources.

The difficult task of discerning radical narratives therefore falls to the public, who must analyze the information and avoid perpetuating its reach through ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. Sometimes unsuspecting people share material because they think it’s funny or absurd, inadvertently propagating the narrative and allowing it to reach someone more vulnerable. Naik’s video stating that Muslims should not wish Christians ‘Merry Christmas’ was shared multiple times including by some who just thought it was ridiculous. However, this is one of the videos viewed by Khairul during his radicalization process.

In a survey conducted by Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information in 2021, only 51% of respondents believed their country was a target for terrorist attacks and fewer than half said they would contact authorities if they believed a loved one was displaying signs of radicalization.

The Singapore analysis shows how social media can be used to exploit vulnerabilities in any community and any individual, potentially resulting in increased violent extremism. Communities must find ways to educate individuals about extremist viewpoints while providing them with the skills to think critically. We must ensure that there are outlets for people to speak about divisive issues, especially for those who lack solid family and peer support channels. Education and discussion will enable different viewpoints to be heard and challenged.

It is impossible to prevent vulnerable people from ever seeing propaganda or disinformation, but it is possible to teach them how to respond correctly. These cases show the increased importance of technology security and community awareness in the fight against terrorism. Governments and citizens across Southeast Asia and the Pacific must be aware of the effects that abuse of social media can have on their societies. The fight against terrorism is no longer solely in the hands of policymakers and police; instead, it rests under the thumbs of each of us.

William Frangia is a second lieutenant in the US Army and a visiting fellow at ASPI. This article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).