Former Terrorists and Neo-Nazis Get Their Own Social Network

Wired/April 25, 2012

A "social network" for former violent extremists and their victims has launched with the backing of a consortium of partners including Google Ideas, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), the Gen Next Foundation and Rehabstudio.

Against Violent Extremism (AVE) is an online platform (sure to be dubbed a "Facebook for terrorists") where former extremists (known as "formers") and survivors of attacks can share their experiences, with the view to help other individuals leave or avoid falling into violent extremist groups.

The idea stems from a discussion at the Summit Against Violent Extremism, an event hosted by Google Ideas in Dublin during 2011. The event showed that former perpetrators and victims of violent extremism can be powerful influencers in turning other people away from violence. Furthermore, the practical measures needed to help an individual leave these groups can be similar, regardless of the ideology — they will often require a new social support structure, alternative housing and a new job.

Robert Örell, head of Exit Sweden, an organization that helps rehabilitate former neo-Nazis, says, "Often the key factor in turning an extremist away from violence is not so much challenging their opinions as meeting them with a nonjudgmental attitude and giving them a practical route to new friends, a new job and a new life. This is true whether you a talking to a former skinhead extremist or a former Islamic radical."

AVE will be run by ISD, a London-based think tank that has a long track record working in the counter-extremism field. Director Sasha Havlicek promises that it "won't be another talking shop — it will result in political outcomes."

It will include profiles of former violent extremists from a variety of backgrounds — be it Islam or the white power movement. (AVE already includes former members from both of these.) The network will also include other people with an interest in countering violent extremism, including activists, policy-makers, and entrepreneurs. Members (who will all be vetted) can set their own privacy settings to control the information they share about themselves. The platform currently has 44 "formers," 18 "survivors" from a total of 395 "connections" and plans to have 500 members by the end of year one and more than 1,000 by the end of year two. Members are mapped so that people can search for expertise geographically.

AVE aims to bring together the many organizations around the world already involved in efforts to tackle extremism, which tend to be local and small-scale. Members from these organizations will be able to share their expertise, pool resources and find donors or volunteers.

There are resources on the site to advise activists how to run a charitable organization with tax efficiency, how to build a marketing campaign, how to use social networks and how to build a website. People will be able to upload short clips to start discussions through the site's YouTube channel.

The site — which was built by Rehabstudio — also provides a matchmaking services for those who need help and those those have money, time and expertise.

Jonathan Powell, former Downing Street Chief of Staff under Prime Minister Tony Blair, says: "The Against Violent Extremism Network is a groundbreaking initiative which brings together expertise from both the private and think tank sectors to do something governments can't do by themselves."

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