By Julia Tar
(EurActiv) — Minors are especially vulnerable to manipulation by terrorist organisations and more action is needed to respond quickly to this growing threat, according to a document by the Spanish EU Council Presidency, dated 10 October and seen by Euractiv.
The document, which focuses on the “state of play and next steps” related to the radicalisation of minors online by terrorists, was sent to the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) and the Council.
Since both minors and terrorist groups are increasingly present online, the latter are more likely to be “designing their communication strategies to attract younger audiences”, as pointed out by Europol’s 2022 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, the document said.
The Spanish presidency believes that “it is necessary to have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the threat, to engage the relevant actors and to adopt the right strategies and tools to prevent and respond quickly and effectively to this threat”.
According to the document, even though terrorist attacks in the EU decreased in recent years, the involvement of minors, aged between 13 and 17, did not.
For example, in June 2022, a 16-year-old was arrested “for links to terrorist activities” in Spain, for accessing videos and training manuals and then planning to join terrorists in a conflict zone.
The document emphasised that “there is no single profile of a radicalised minor”. However, numbers show that males are more likely to be radicalised (70%), and half of them have no previous criminal record. Common characteristics include socialising and other psychological issues.
Borderline content and social media
According to the document, borderline content can disguise terrorists’ ideologies “by softened language and humour”, or even memes, making radicalisation more likely, as shown in an EU Internet Forum study.
This is particularly dangerous because it does not cross “the threshold for control efforts by governments and internet companies”, which means that it is legal but still harmful.
Terrorist content is also being spread on social media used by minors, such as TikTok or even online gaming platforms, with gaming being the fastest growing global industry, “with over 900 million gamers”, who may include very young children.
While social media platforms make efforts to moderate content, it can be challenging to do so as actors try to circumvent moderation. They can also use smaller sites or alternative internet platforms that do not have content moderation on the same level.
The Metaverse may be another challenge since it is expected to be used by young people.
Encrypted chat apps are also used to share borderline content, which can lead to extremist content, the document added.
The Spanish presidency acknowledged “the significant efforts and progress” by the Commission and the member states in tackling this issue, “which have considerably strengthened the European Union’s response to this threat”.
They praised the role of the Radicalisation Awareness Network, focusing on education and prevention, and the European Internet Forum (EUIF), also focusing on prevention involving EU governments and parties from the internet industry. The paper also mentioned the adoption of the Digital Services Act as helping with prevention.
The Spanish presidency believes that relevant national policies would be needed, as well as increasing “the digital prevention knowledge” of those involved, “from the security and social perspective”.
Increased critical thinking and digital literacy among the youth would also have to be part of the solution and minors should be considered as part of those who can contribute to the prevention, rather than only as targets.
“It would be advisable to reach a consensus within the European Union on the delimitation of content considered legal but harmful,” the document said. This could be carried out by the EUIF and “in the context of the Digital Services Act to strengthen guidance to industry” and support prevention.
To avoid overlapping, better coordination at the EU level would also be needed.
The European Commission plans to launch an EU Knowledge Hub next year to prevent radicalisation, and the presidency is convinced this will strengthen the “collaboration between policy-makers, researchers and practitioners involved in preventing the online radicalisation of minors, and will promote and facilitate the training of member states in this field.”