Addressing the influence of radical messages and ideas over young people in the online space

The First Stakeholder Engagement Event under project YouthRightOn “Addressing the influence of radical messages and ideas aimed at young people in the online space” took place as a webinar on 16 July 2020, via Zoom. It gathered 30 participants from public institutions, CSO representatives, experts and activists dealing with issues of internet safety, community engagement, youth education, human and minority rights, diversity and prevention of radicalisation. The objective of the webinar was to inform interested parties about the project (including on the results from the diagnostics phase, the offline activities and the online campaign “Find Another Way”), to seek out feedback from the civil society sector on the effectiveness of the action, facilitate exchanges and synergies between similar actions performed by different actors, and to popularize the project results so far.

Youth Vulnerabilities towards Far-Right Messages Online: diagnostic findings

Rositsa Dzhekova, Director of the CSD Security Program, opened the floor by presenting the YouthRightOn initiative and the results from the project activities so far. She outlined CSD’s experience in analysing radicalisation, which dates back to 2015, and spread its scope to include not only religious elements, but also narratives from the far right and the far left. In Bulgaria, a Strategy and Action plan for countering radicalisation and terrorism was adopted in 2015, but in the wide public debate this issue continues to be considered as a religious one to this day.

Having in mind that far right narratives have become increasingly normalized in the public sphere, the YouthRightOn project aims to fill the knowledge gap of the way young people are affected by far right messages and how they react to these. The diagnostic study conducted within the project aimed at identify levels of resonance of far-right messages and actions (online and offline) among youth (14-19yo) in Bulgaria and assess those factors contributing to susceptibility or resilience to far-right narratives and influences, as well as delineate vulnerable groups and their characteristics. The findings served to develop targeted campaign messages.

The approach included identifying the main far-right messages circulated on social media (mainly Facebook) and their core arguments, followed by a representative sociological survey among 1019 respondents between the ages of 14 and 19. Five student focus groups of young people were organised to test and discuss the results. Based on this extensive diagnostic phase, online and offline campaign activities were developed to achieve the project goals.

The survey tested four main risk indicators: approval of far-right narratives; approval for political violence and hate-inspired actions; engagement with far-right content online, and readiness to engage in far-right actions in real life. Those were connected to the more horizontal factors studied, such as demographics; social, political and psychological factors; previous civic engagement; online behavior, and experience with violence.

The analysis of far-right narratives disseminated in the online space showed that these have common features: presenting a specific social problem as a very urgent and pressing matter of national importance for which the blame is placed on a specific (minority) group. Oftentimes a call for (violent) actions against a demonised group is included in such narratives. Throughout the research, almost 20 such narratives were identified: against a concrete minority, anti-democratic ones, anti-system ones, religion-based, etc. The majority of young people (70+%) tend to agree with statements related to the supremacy of ethnic Bulgarians and anti-Roma narratives, followed by anti-migrant statements and religious exclusionism. Their opinions are more divided on anti-EU messages. Far-right violent actions generally do not rally wide support with the exception of “forced return of refugees and not letting them cross the border” attracting the support of one quarter of respondents.

More than 50 % of young people claim they have, one way or another, been exposed to far right content online: while most young people come across such content by chance, 20 % passively consume it (read without commenting/sharing), 14 % would approve it, and 4-8 % would actively engage with spreading it.

Based on the factor analysis, two risk groups were identified:

– Passive “endorsers”: more likely to approve far-right narratives, less informed but more unsatisfied by politics, more likely to have experienced violence (either as

witness or participant, in school or in their neighborhood), no previous civic engagement, influenced on important topics by social media rather than by family and friends;

– The “activists”: approve political violence and more likely to engage in far-right actions; more informed on political matters, yet dissatisfied with politics; need social validation and acceptance by others; more likely to have experienced violence; previous civic engagement; lower level of trust in family and friends, turn for information on important social issues mainly to social media and “influencers”.

The main conclusion of this analysis is that attitudes do not necessarily lead to actions but the exposure to far-right content online is strongly linked to the higher acceptance of far-right ideas by the young people, including the approval of violence. At the same time, even though young people may consider such narratives “normal” and acceptable, they have not yet internalized such messages and are flexible to new points of view. Also, when talking about reacting to social injustices or problems, the main difficulty for youngsters is to find like-minded people to help and support them and engage in a constructive way. This allows to implement campaign activities to change attitudes and increase the target groups’’ perceptions of alternatives ways of thinking and acting.

Тhe “Find Another Way“ online campaign

Mariyan Sabev, Analyst at CSD Security Program, presented the project online campaign. It launched in February 2020 on different social media channels and targets young people with alternative narratives. It focusses on developing resilience towards far right messages online, not by opposing them but by encouraging positive civic engagement and alternative viewpoints.

The online campaign was set in four mutually dependent stages:

– CHALLENGE: present the problem among youth, provoke reflections and challenge standard ways of thinking through the input of famous Bulgarian influencers;

– EDUCATE: educate the target groups on the ways online narratives can work to provoke, manipulate and incite hate, through a series of animated videos;

– INSPIRE: inspire young people to find constructive ways to engage in social and civic causes, through showing positive examples by their peers, create a feeling of empowerment;

– ACT: provoke and present alternative options to establish active positions among the young.

From media literacy to prevention of radicalisation

Dr. Emanuil Georgiev, Analyst at the Applied Research and Communications Fund, presented the offline campaign activities and made parallels to previous online and offline trainings in class implemented in the field of addressing problematic online content and behavior.

Mr. Georgiev summarized the findings from the focus groups discussions, conducted with students and teachers in schools in Plovdiv, Vratsa, Kyustendil and Sofia, as well as with the Youth Panel of the Safer Internet Center.

The focus groups confirmed that when kids are given the opportunity to reflect and are asked of their opinion, they are flexible in their points of view and often change their opinions during the discussions, demonstrating openness to new and alternative viewpoints. All the discussions were very lively and respectful among the participants.

Three rounds of topics for discussion were posed to the youngsters. First, how they perceive patriotism, where no clear correlation appeared that perception of patriotism affected how they see minorities. The second round was on their attitude towards specific minorities and hateful or polarizing narratives, where they managed to reach more nuanced opinions during the lively guided discussions. Lastly, they were asked to suggest alternative messages for an online campaign. Their suggestions included the ideas of “everybody is equally important and can contribute to society”; “the power of the good example where an underdog overcame their background”, and that since a person’s environment is defining for them, everybody needs an equal chance to overcome it.

The offline campaign included developing of a lesson guide and methodology for teachers, which aims at building resilience through several mechanisms and themes, incl. fostering emotional intelligence, conflict resolution skills, developing tolerance and empathy, media literacy and critical thinking of students when consuming content online. The method includes voluntary interactive working groups following a very systematic yet interactive and student-led (teacher-facilitated) approach. The methodology and lesson plans were introduced during a training for 27 teachers held in February 2020, where the approach was discussed and feedback was received.

Based on past experiences with other SafeNet campaigns on related topics (#YouAretheHero – „Героят си ти“ and #ItIsUptoYou – „От теб зависи“), Mr. Georgiev highlighted two elements as key for creating impactful campaigns:

– fostering emotional intelligence (validating the need of belonging, recognizing ones’ emotions and frustrations);

– engaging critical thinking (when given the space and opportunity to reflect and debate, young people are very flexible in their way of thinking). Joint actions for positive change: discussion

Participants showed great interest in the data produced within the project and asked for additional information.

Lyubomir Krilchev, expert on violence against children at UNICEF Bulgaria, thanked the team for their efforts and stressed the importance of the insights generated through the research for practical action. He was particularly interested in further insights related to the impact of violence in young people’s vulnerability towards embracing radical ideas, as well as the role of the family in building resilience. Rositsa Dzhekova explained that both these factors were found to play a role in the formation of attitudes towards far-right and polarizing narratives, and ultimately – towards acceptance of violent actions. As for the role of the family in these processes, the survey also tested trust in family and to what extent the immediate social circle influences views on important social and political matters. In the “activists group”, this role is assumed by social media rather than by family and friends.

Liliya Dragoeva, Director of the BILITIS Foundation and an LGTBI-rights activist commended the team’s work on the diagnostic study and stressed that the insights are very valuable for the activists sector, as such in-depth data on the issue of homophobic attitudes in particular among youth are lacking. She suggested to deepen the analysis through investigating how attitudes towards different polarizing narratives interact, for example testing the assumption that those approving homophobic statements are also more likely to hold anti-EU attitudes.

According to Eva Zhecheva, Head of Youth Department at the National Ombudsman Office, Bulgaria has been part of the counteracting radicalisation and hate speech policy debate for years, pointing out developments at EU level in which the country participates. She stressed that the current social environment is very toxic and developing children’s social and emotional intelligence skills is very challenging, especially considering that the most affected during the state of emergency are the children from vulnerable groups. The accent should be put indeed on the cooperation with public institutions, more specifically listening to children’s needs. She expressed her readiness on behalf of the Ombudsman Office to support the campaign and the project’s efforts.

During the final discussion participants agreed that such campaigns have potential to foster change but face many challenges. A campaign alone can only achieve that much, it needs to be an integral part of a comprehensive, multi-institutional strategic approach that works at multiple levels. Support and cooperation with the government and the public institutions is key, yet political will to address issues of far-right radicalisation and hate speech is often lacking.