During the last few years, I’ve been heartbroken by stories about young people choosing paths of violent extremism. I’m talking about people like Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist whose shooting rampage left nine black churchgoers dead in South Carolina, or Hoda Muthana, a young Muslim woman who left her family in Alabama to marry an ISIS fighter in Syria. Their choices are stunning for their impact on the lives of innocent people, and because the path to redemption after such a choice seems nearly impossible.
I read these stories but had never really considered them through the lens of media literacy. That is, until I received an invitation from UNESCO to attend a conference on the internet and what they term “youth radicalization.” The experience transformed the way I think about The LAMP’s work in media literacy, and opened my eyes to a new set of potential for how expanding access to media literacy and critical thinking can change the lives of young people worldwide.
It actually took very little time for me to see how The LAMP could add value to the conversation about youth violent extremism. During the opening session of the conference, panelists immediately took issue with the subtext of the conference, saying it was too easy to blame the internet for turning normal-seeming youth into rage-infused extremists. It was argued that this approach gives the internet way too much credit, while giving hardly any to young people. Of course I agree; we at The LAMP speak often about the faulty logic of blaming media or technologies instead of the people responsible for creating and interpreting them. It’s one of the reasons why we do what we do in the first place. We believe everyone is a producer and a reader, and that we all share the responsibilities that come with those privileges.
When three different high-ranking UNESCO officials used the term “media literacy” in their opening remarks, it was music to my ears. It only got better when Ross Lajeunesse from Google stood up to say that the most effective way to steer youth away from violent extremism was to give them a safe space to challenge harmful and misleading media. That’s exactly the kind of space created by The LAMP in its hands-on programs, and through the use of media remix tools like MediaBreaker/Studios. We’ve never pitched these tools and programs as a means for combating terrorism, but hearing these experts and leaders speak so passionately about the potential of media literacy to do just that was like an alarm bell directly striking my brain.
I counted at least a dozen more times when media literacy was raised as an antidote for violent extremism. I’m used to meeting with people and making the case for how media literacy can help young people find jobs, become more engaged in their communities and make more informed choices, but not avoid a life of domestic or international terrorism.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of the conference was the (only) session in which actual youth were present, hidden by a scrim and with their voices altered to protect their identities. Both young people had been detained at the airport en route to join ISIS, and when a member of the audience asked what piece of propaganda compelled them to defect to a terrorist organization, both of the youth agreed that there was no single piece of media. Rather, it was the collection of anti-Muslim messaging they found inherent to our culture, which reinforced their status as outsiders and undesirables. I was equally struck by another comment the young people made. They provided more insight, saying that the same things that caused them to pursue a violent pathway was the same things that caused them to abandon it: the search for answers. I wondered how their lives might have been different if they had been offered the skills, tools and the agency to push back on those messages. Maybe if they could have found purpose in creating positive representations of Muslim identity and culture, they might have chosen a different path.
Believe me, I’m not saying media literacy is the end-all solution to ending violent youth extremism. The issue is far too nuanced and complex for any single silver bullet, so to speak. But I’m more convinced than ever that it is a vital tool, and that so far we have barely begun to tap into its potential to address a range of ills. Regardless of how different people may vote, I think we can all agree that we want more peaceful places where young people can grow with promise and confidence. If there is even a small chance that expanding media literacy can foster this world, don’t we owe it just a little more effort?