Response to 'Christchurch Call' must define violent extremism, include civil society

Response to 'Christchurch Call' must define violent extremism, include civil society
© CHARLES PLATIAU/AFP/Getty Images

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronBudowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Whistleblower Edward Snowden calls on Macron to grant him asylum in France Trump to meet with India's Modi in Texas, Australia's Morrison in Ohio MORE recently convened governments and tech companies in Paris for the “Christchurch Call” summit to stop the spread of violent extremism on social media. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon issued a joint statement in support of their call to action. President Trump decided not to join the pledge, expressing concern that it would limit free speech.

The Christchurch Call is a laudable, necessary initiative with two significant problems. First, it lacks a definition for violent extremism. A civil society counter-statement to the Christchurch Call asserts that, without a definition of violent extremism, vague calls for censorship make it more likely that abusive governments will censor human rights activists or minority groups under the guise of preventing terrorism. Second, the exclusion of civil society from the summit reduces the opportunity for meaningful accountability and people-powered solutions to the tech-terror nexus.

In our map of solutions to social media threats, the Toda Peace Institute lays out roles for tech companies, governments and civil society to address the tech-terror nexus. The scale of the problem requires that we all work together. We cannot stop the spread of violent extremism online unless we have a definition that creates boundaries protecting civil society’s free speech as well as red lines that allow tech companies to take action against dangerous speech and violent extremist groups.

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The Christchurch Call compels us to understand white nationalism as violent extremism. In response to the white nationalist terror attack in New Zealand, social media companies have taken steps to remove posts and accounts spreading explicit white nationalist content. This was an important step for companies to acknowledge white nationalism threatens the lives of other Americans with domestic terrorism. Facebook offers its definitions of “dangerous individuals and groups” that now includes white nationalists.

The U.S. coined the term “violent extremism” to describe the belief systems that justify and motivate terrorism, which is defined as ideologically motivated violence to support social, economic or political objectives. Four characteristics of violent extremist groups can help us understand the distinctions between protected and unprotected free speech for white nationalists:

Ideological identity: Violent extremism begins with an ideology that lays out grievances and a vision for dramatic change. Many violent extremist groups are loose networks. So-called “lone wolves” or “lost dogs” who appear to act on their own almost always trace their ideological goals to a wider audience. The ideological manifesto written by the Christchurch killer built on the ideology of other white nationalists. Violent extremist ideologies may have a religious dimension but they are only superficially linked to religious teachings and their followers often have low levels of religious literacy.

Superiority narrative: Violent extremist beliefs almost always include a superiority narrative. They hold a shared belief that democracy, human rights and multiculturalism are wrong. In most cases, authoritarian male leaders argue they alone should rule society, that their group of people is superior to others, and that there should be religious, racial or ethnic purity by separating out the so-called superior group.

These first two characteristics of violent extremism may be troublesome, but they are protected by free speech. The next two characteristics, however, fall outside of protected free speech because they include racial slurs and threats to human life.  

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Redemptive violence: A violent extremist group’s ideology is “extreme” because its members believe violence is tactically superior to any other method for pursuing their ideological goals.  Other armed movements use violence as one of many strategies; violent extremist groups view terror as their primary strategy. Terror is a form of violence that aims to be dramatic and induce public fear. Violent extremists believe in a fantasy of terror, in which gruesome killing rituals are redemptive, saving society from the current social, political and economic order.

Civilian targets: Unlike other armed movements, violent extremist beliefs attempt to justify killing civilians. Whereas most armed movements target state actors and property to achieve ideological goals, violent extremists tend to argue that civilians, not the state, are responsible for their grievances. Violent extremists believe killing civilians will “purify” society and achieve their ideological goals.

White nationalism fits all four characteristics. White nationalist ideology blames minority groups and imagines a “race war” helping to bring about a country where Christian white people do not interact with African Americans, Jews, Muslims, or other minorities. They spread false rumors about threats to white people from these groups to justify preemptive terrorist violence against civilians, such as the recent massacres of Muslims, Jews and African Americans in their mosques, synagogues and churches.

Recent steps by governments and tech companies show important promise in stemming the digital spread of violent extremism, but we have more work to do to curb hate speech online and to make sure discussions of violence and racism aren’t also censored as hate speech. And there are still widespread references to white nationalist narratives on social media that fit into these four categories of violent extremist beliefs.  

Congress cannot take meaningful action to protect Americans until we define the boundaries of what is and is not violent extremism. A definition must help tech companies and governments recognize the differences between minority groups  discussing racial justice and white nationalists fomenting a race war. Civil society stakeholders who bear the brunt of terrorist acts as well as repression of free speech also must be included in the important meetings to help define these terms and identify accountability mechanisms.

Lisa Schirch is the editor of "The Ecology of Violent Extremism" (2018, Rowman and Littlefield), a professor of conflict analysis and resolution, and directs the Social Media and Peacebuilding Program of the Toda Peace Institute. Follow her on Twitter @LisaSchirch.