U.S. Embassy Sponsors #HackingExtremism Symposium on Countering Violent Extremist Messaging Online

On April 14, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Ambassador Richard H. Jones launched the U.S. Embassy-sponsored #HackingExtremism: A Participatory Symposium on Countering Violent Extremism Online in collaboration with the Social Media Exchange (SMEX).  This three-day symposium is the first of its kind in Lebanon.  It brings together leaders from the Lebanese government, civil society, the private sector, and academia to assess the threats posed by violent extremism online in Lebanon and develop coordinated, community-driven approaches to promoting an alternate and inclusive vision of hope for a better future.  A range of local and international experts are participating in the Symposium, which includes sessions on social media, messaging, Daesh’s propaganda tactics, and the importance of protecting human rights and civil liberties online when developing countermeasures.  The #HackingExtremism Symposium is a symbol of Lebanon and the United States’ shared commitment to countering violent extremist organizations like Daesh and its counterparts.

As part of the Symposium activities, the U.S. Embassy is also sponsoring “Lifting Up Youth Voices: A Chat about Technology, Countering Violent Extremism, and Free Speech” forum in collaboration with the Lebanese American University (LAU) and SMEX.  The forum will provide an opportunity for young people to join the discussion about countering violent extremism online and in their communities and to suggest potential responses.

Follow hashtag #HackingExtremism or #إختراق_التطرف on Twitter for more updates on the Symposium.

Below are CDA Jones’ remarks as prepared for the event:

Good morning, Your Excellency Director of Political Affairs Ambassador Charbel Wehbi, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman, I’m pleased to welcome you to #HackingExtremism: A Participatory Symposium on Countering Violent Extremism Online, hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in collaboration with the Social Media Exchange – SMEX.  This symposium is the first event of its kind in Lebanon.  Leaders from civil society, the private sector, and the Government of Lebanon are gathered here to examine the drivers of radicalization, learn more about tools to raise awareness and counter online messages of hate, and develop a coordinated, community-driven approach to promoting alternate and inclusive visions of hope for a better future.

President Obama has said, “Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and more compelling vision.”   The urgent challenge of violent extremism demands that we all embrace a proactive, positive approach that involves contributions from a wide range of stakeholders in order to undermine the attraction of extremist movements and ideologies that seek to radicalize, recruit, and incite to violence.  Most importantly, it involves an approach driven by those who are on the front lines in the fight against violent extremism in their communities – those of you gathered in this room today.

Why is this endeavor important to the U.S. Embassy, and why is it relevant to Lebanon?  Daesh, Al-Nusra and other violent extremist groups pose a threat to Lebanon on both a tactical and an ideological level.  The brave members of Lebanon’s Army and security forces regularly confront Daesh along the northern border, and go after them wherever they threaten Lebanon’s stability. Daesh’s cowardly bombing of civilians in the Burj al-Barajneh neighborhood last November was a stark reminder of their ability to penetrate deeper into Lebanon. But Lebanon’s security forces responded quickly and rounded up the terrorists linked to the attack. They have done a truly admirable job of preserving Lebanon’s security in the face of these real and direct threats from violent extremists.

Violent extremism is a cancer that eats away the fabric of society.  It seeks to draw in young people by means of distorted versions of reality, robbing these young people of their future, and robbing their families of a son or a daughter.  Daesh’s message of hate is the antithesis of Lebanese values of tolerance, openness, and co-existence. Just last month, Daesh released a YouTube video that threatened Lebanon, once again using the technology of the modern world to promulgate the most primitive expressions of prejudice and savagery.  The so-called Islamic State has no positive message to offer. Only fear, hate, and violence.  Unfortunately, Daesh is using the internet – a tool that should be and usually is used to promote the free flow of information – as a tool to infect the hearts and minds of our children.  We live in an age when we have more information available at our fingertips every day than had existed in all the libraries in all of history when I was a boy.  It’s tragic that instead of reaping the benefits of that opportunity, some young people fall victim to the depraved disinformation of the hate mongers.  At every level of society – grassroots, local government, and national government – we all have a role, in social media and elsewhere, in defeating Daesh’s malicious propaganda and revealing violent extremist messaging and narratives for what they really are.  The howls of monsters.

We believe that Daesh poses a threat to the United States and the entire international community. The United States and our partners in the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh have committed to use all instruments of power to defeat it. As Secretary Kerry said recently, people are learning more and more about the lies on which their false “caliphate” is based.  But we know that this fight will not be won quickly, will not be won solely through military means, and will not be won by any single country alone.  This is a long-term struggle that will be won with a comprehensive approach uniting state and nongovernmental actors across the globe.

This is at the heart of why we are supporting this three-day symposium. The United States does not presume to have all the answers, to violent extremism or any other issue.  In any event, solutions will vary by country.  Each solution will require local knowledge, expertise, and understanding of the core values of the society affected.   This symposium was developed with the goal of empowering all of us to learn from one another and to form alliances that will help build awareness and develop interventions for our communities. However, since countering violent extremism is a global issue as well, we have also brought in international experts to contribute to the discussion by sharing their experiences and insights with social media, messaging, and Daesh’s methods.

I want to thank you all for the service that you already provide to your country and to your communities.  We hope the #HackingExtremism Symposium will bring new resources and provide opportunities to network that will be useful in countering the perverse message of Daesh and their counterparts, and in forming new and innovative solutions to the challenges posed by violent extremists, especially online.  I also want to thank the team at SMEX for helping us turn this vision into a reality.  I wish everyone a very productive next three days, and look forward to hearing the outcomes!