SFU students counter extremism through competition

OSCE competition members. | Photo courtesy of Richard Frank

SFU professor Richard Frank decided to run his fourth year Advanced Issues in Cybercrime class a little differently last semester. Instead of the usual lectures, presentations and papers, the class was structured around participating in a counter-extremism competition hosted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Frank completed a PhD in Computing Science and during his studies, was involved in working on crime data, which sparked his interest in criminology. He pursued another PhD in Criminology and eventually took an opportunity to teach cybercrime at SFU.

“I love programming. This job allows me to program, research, have students conduct analyses and write ups, and it’s the perfect field for me,” says Frank. “I get to work in crime, but at the same time my passion for computers is possible.”

Voices against extremism campaign

Frank explains that the goal of the competition was to have university students design and implement digital initiatives to combat extremist groups that recruit online. Before the fall semester started, Frank was worried not enough students would enroll for the class; he began advertising to potential students with the prerequisites about the competition over the summer.

“The people [in the class] knew what they were getting into and they were quite enthusiastic about it, which was very welcome to see,” says Frank.

The students put together a website, Voices Against Extremism, to showcase all the activities they were doing for the campaign. This included an interview series titled “Stories of Resilience” and also an art gallery at HiVE.

“The purpose of the art gallery was to attract people to the campaign and showcase how different cultures viewed Canada,” says Frank.

The silent majority

According to Frank, there are two ways that extremist groups recruit through online marketing. There is the direct approach: extremists glorify what they do through videos and on social media. The other way is through third-party advertisements via people who have already bought into the beliefs of the extremist group and attempt to recruit more members by sharing the radical ideas.

After the class spoke to various community leaders and law enforcement personnel, they decided that the theme of their campaign was to target the silent majority. Frank explains that the majority of people are accepting of immigrants, but we don’t hear from them.

Matty Taghipour, a student in Frank’s class, says that through their research, they learned how important a sense of community was in preventing people from turning to violent extremism.

“People go into violent extremism because they don’t have a sense of community and they turn to a wild extremist group,” says Taghipour, 23. “It comes down to building a connection. What we want to do is embrace everyone’s similarities, show that we’re not so different from one another and that we don’t have to hurt one another.”

Taghipour says that the goal of the campaign is to encourage the silent majority to take a stand and tackle extremism in their own communities.

Making it to the finals

As a result of the class’ efforts, they made it to the finals of the OSCE’s competition. Taghipour, four other team members and Frank were able to travel to Hamburg, Germany to represent Canada. According to Taghipour, over forty teams had applied and the SFU team was chosen as one of the top three. The team had to give two presentations and placed second in the competition.

“It’s been a whirlwind experience and something that I will remember for the rest of my life,” says Taghipour.

Taghipour says that various members of the class are now working on forming a non-profit organization based on the campaign so that they can continue with other projects and events that they have in mind.

For more information on the campaign, please visit www.voicesagainstextremism.ca.