ICT, Datafication, Covid-19, Social Listening and AI Technology in Development
Countering the extremist narrative, how social listening could help.

Countering the extremist narrative, how social listening could help.

In my previous post I have highlighted a Public Health project in which Social Listening was effectively employed to not only provide optimized communication materials for health practitioners worldwide, but also advice and techniques to pre- and debunk misinformation. As the social media are an open place to share opinions and content, there are alas also those people that use the social media to spread misinformation, not only regarding vaccine hesitancy, but also for harmful purposes like hate speech, conspiracy theories (e.g. QAnon), fake news, racism, violence and terrorism, which I conveniently capture into the term extremism. These extremisms are issues prevalent and of concern in all countries worldwide. One of the issues that need to be addressed is in the Social Media algorithms that contribute in this, as discussed by my colleagues in other posts (e.g. by Mateus here and Hussein here) and further reinforced by the Washington post which writes about Facebook that ‘today’s algorithm can turn their feeds into echo chambers of divisive content and news, of varying reputability, that support their outlook’. People on social media that are engaging with extremist content will, based on their clicking behaviour, automatically receive bit by bit more and more of other similar content, resulting in a vicious circle that should be stopped.

The online space is a haven for extremists of all kinds. Lee, (2020, 66.)

The Covid-19 pandemic only seemed to have worsened things. A very hot discussion is surrounding the Algorithms currently, but it will take time to change this as it affects the business model of social media. The satirist show from Arjen Lubach has devoted a very interesting episode to the work of the algorithm in the Dutch setting (Dutch with English subs).

The picture drawn by Arjen Lubach is of course too shallow and makes claims that cannot be (fully) evidenced, but it does depict the seriousness of this issue, while also providing for a good laughter. Social media are not just places to share content or disseminate information, but places to meet, share and interact. It involves raising awareness on the extremist views and recruitment, so people get drawn into these extremist networks by other people and are then encouraged to take action. The algorithms are part of the problem and assist in this but cannot be held fully responsible. How then to combat these extremist narratives? Social media platforms have set solid terms of conditions and they ‘are in charge of enforcing these guidelines and regularly remove content and block users that are in violation of guidelines that they have set on hate speech, inappropriate content, support or celebration of terrorism, or spam’ (Ghanesh & Bright, 2020, 10-11). Despite their mission to moderate content and block users that violate their rules, moderation and bans also backfire in the way that blocked users go to a different platform, and that those banned by certain platforms gain status in their community or groups (Ghanesh & Bright, 2020, 11).

Control of the social media narrative is, for many, equated to control of wider societal narratives and is therefore an end in itself. Lee,(2020, 84)

Simply blocking users is not solving the problem either, therefore Ghanesh & Bright suggest that along with other measures, it is important to develop ‘programs to counter the narratives on which extremists thrive while being conscious of rights to free expression and the appropriateness of restrictions on speech (Ghanesh & Bright, 2020, 7). Thus, similarly to the awareness trainings that are conducted in high schools, on topics like drug abuse, radicalization, bullying etc. there is a need to bring the counter narratives to those online places where the extremism is developing and leading the discourse. Social listening is one of the approaches that really work in locating the online communities where the counter narratives are needed the most, to present content that could take them out of that vicious circle of content that reinforces their extreme worldview. Therefore, social listening is an interesting approach to find the right audience and tailor make content to act against extremism and radicalization. It helps us understand the places where they gather, why they join certain groups and communities and where to counter the narrative with strategically developed communications. An organization that works on a variety of issues is the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Together with local NGOs, their Against Violent Extremism network has initiated a number of projects that draw on the social listening approach and based on the gained insights is developing counter narratives that are battling extremism. It provides really insightful reports that could help organizations tackle these challenges. Please share in the comments below!


Ganesh, Bharath & Bright, Jonathan. (2020). Countering Extremists on Social Media: Challenges for Strategic Communication and Content Moderation. Policy & Internet. 12. 6-19. 10.1002/poi3.236.

Lee, B. Countering Violent Extremism Online: The Experiences of Informal Counter Messaging Actors. Policy & Internet. 12. 66-87. 10.1002/poi3.236.

Parekh, D. & Amarasingam, Amarnath & Dawson, Lorne & Ruths, D. 2018. Studying jihadists on social media: A critique of data collection methodologies. Perspectives on Terrorism. 12. 3-21.


  1. Even though the internet seems to have always provided a platform for extremist to network and spread vicious content, it does, however, appear that the Covid-19 pandemic only seemed to have worsened things. Internet terrorism seems to be on the rise, instead of being under control. It almost appears that whilst programmes are being created to empower practitioners and civil society around the world to mitigate hate and to counter extremists, just as much or more sites, posts and organizational communities are popping up across digital platforms.
    I liked that you brought up the issue around the way Algorithms are currently being used to contribute to this issue. There surely seem to be an appetite among informal actors who are in charge of enforcing guidelines, but yet still are willing to promote and publish content which only further promote vicious cycles.
    This brings me to the thought, I wonder what role freedom of expression plays in both allowing for the internet to be a haven for extremists and stepping in to help avoid the spread of harmful messages.
    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on whether or not counter messaging are generalized messages or messages that are being directed to specific audiences.

  2. Super interesting article, a challenge in the context of social listening and activities to compact mis- and disinformation online is language sensitivity and dominance. English is a dominant language on the web (French, German, Spanish and Chinese have all pushed into the top languages online in the last decades.)

    Social media is context-sensitive, with different social media dominating in different areas and the same social media channels being used differently in different locations. With this, I want to emphasize that efforts to combat harmful rumours and extremism on the web should be mindful of differences in language usage (i.e. not English centric) and culture differences.

    Living with a speaker of a language with less than 20,000 active speakers left (Upper Sorbian, a recognized minority language in Germany) with an active online community, I appreciate that scanning and analyzing all online activity in all languages is not possible (“complete” surveillance is of course not unproblematic either,) yet the challenges of monitoring non-English online content similarly to English online content need to be put higher on the social ICT agenda.

    1. Thank you Erika, this is very true – language remains a barrier in this and reinforces the idea to partner with local organizations and put it higher on the agenda – agreed!


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