Students Join Together to Challenge Extremists’ Messaging – Jean R. AbiNader

Project Challenges Universities to Develop Counter-Narratives to ISIL Recruitment

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
June 8, 2015

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

University students from 23 countries recently took on a very interesting challenge – developing social media campaigns to reach populations vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Called “P2P: Challenging Extremism,” the top three university teams competed for “the best creative media and social media campaigns to counter violent extremism” at the State Department on Thursday, June 4.

To develop, produce, and manage the competition, the State Department reached out to EdVenture Partners, whose founder Tony Sgro literally launched the concept of offering real-world marketing projects to colleges and universities for classroom credit. His company was behind the Brand Morocco project, which developed a profile on how US companies make international business decisions and their perceptions of doing business in Morocco. Then, using this information and their own research, business, communications, marketing, and advertising classes in North America and Morocco competed in presenting integrated marketing campaigns to promote specific sectors in Morocco.

What is critical in using real-world cases such as product launches, recruitment campaigns, or brand awareness studies is that faculty and students work with the clients to build actual solutions that can be implemented. This creative collaboration was evident in the students’ approach to the social media campaigns. They not only identified the issues; each team received a small budget to actually craft the projects they were recommending.

Building the social media platforms was not as simple as designing a website or Facebook page. Among the creative issues faced by the teams was answering critical questions such as who are the “vulnerable populations” who might be open to radicalization, what social media tools might best reach them, and how does one motivate a potential user to engage via social media.

The top three teams came from Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada (four women, two men), Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri (three women), and Curtin University in Perth, Australia (one woman, four men), and they faced similar hurdles. For example, how, in one semester do you gain sufficient understanding of how young Muslims communicate and about what issues, and then use that knowledge to develop a multifaceted media effort?

The Australian team had Muslim members and yet still went out and recruited Muslim faculty and community members as advisors. The Canadians reached out to Muslim members on campus for inputs and greater awareness of challenges facing Muslim youth. The US team engaged knowledgeable faculty and partner schools to refine their knowledge base.

The Canadian team, from the business school, presented first, identifying their three campaign goals as: creating a network of users through connection/inclusion, education, and understanding. Their efforts are targeted at vulnerable populations and the publics that impact them. For the team, it was about building relationships between marginalized members of the community and others to build support and solidarity.

They called their campaign the WANT (we are not them) Movement to give voice to those who feel isolated and impacted by negative stereotypes of Muslims. Their social media platform involves connecting the user with credible sources about Islam and its relevant teachings; giving them a sense of inclusion, respect, and belonging by creating a network of interactive users; educating users and the broader population about Islam and its practices; and providing opportunities for greater engagement within the target groups and the larger society. Their platform was launched in March with very positive results.

The Americans called their campaign “One95” reflecting their focus on individuals within the context of 195 countries. Their target is “generation Z” youth and their teachers. Their platform is very robust, covering 12 different apps, teaching materials, special web connections for teachers, and materials designed for ease of translation into other languages. Their goal is to “educate, empower, and connect” vulnerable populations to #endviolentextremism. Their initial test launch was highly successful in terms of measures of users and view counts, and their project was the top-rated in the competition.

The Australian effort was called 52 Jumaa (Friday, the holy day in the Muslim week), or 52 Saturday or 52 Sunday, depending on which audience is being addressed. The core feature of the platform is to create a community that is consciously committed to change through good works, drawing inspiration from on-line tools such as readings from the Quran that are sent to users weekly. They share how they are meeting the challenge to do good works with other users, keep a diary of their achievements where they can also see how they are doing compared to others, and receive daily affirmations via text. After very proactive media outreach in Perth to reach target populations, 52 Jumaa was launched in April and has already had measurable results and positive impact on its users. A social network is evolving that will enable the program to continue.

Tony Sgro is hopeful that the P2P competition will continue to build through the fall semester. Morocco participated in the first round, and the goal is to pair schools from the West with schools in Muslim-majority countries, providing an intensive creative experience. Also interesting is that the Moroccan team wrote its platform in Arabic, an added incentive to have joint presentations that benefit from a broad range of perspectives. One conclusion from the competition, as the three finalists demonstrated, is the power of young people to use technology to build creative and scalable platforms for communicating across cultures. It was a reaffirming experience to observe.


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