Since the rise of Daesh, the number of centres of terrorism and radicalisation studies seems to have multiplied. Today we have many centres of studies focused on radicalisation and some organisations that have been developing alternative messages to restrain the advance of extremist ideologies. However, one element continues to be highly overlooked: the participation of young people as partners in the development of these messages. If young people are the main target of extremist groups in terms of recruitment and if it is already known that the pursue for a sense of belonging is something that very often motivates them to join these groups, why don’t we bring young people on board, empower them, cultivate critical thinking and inspire them to use social media for peace?
This is exactly what I have been doing through the project Words Heal the World. As a journalist and researcher, I have been training a group of students from both UK and Brazil to deconstruct extremist messages. How do they do that? Participating in live streaming videos on our Facebook page, producing short-documentaries (we launched our first-documentary Behind the Scarf, which challenges gender islamophobia) and developing social media campaigns (in the UK they developed the campaign #MYVOLUNTEERJOURNEY to encourage students to work as volunteer in the Middle East to deconstruct some wrong ideas about the regions and the Muslim community, and in Brazil students developed the campaign #GROWINGTOGETHER to celebrate the World Refugee Day with a positive message, showing people that refugees want and can contribute with the economy of the country that hosts them). In addition to that, students also shed light on the work developed by dozens of organisations that have been using words to tackle extremism/radicalisation. An example of it is a story written about the Peace Cinema Mobile Program created by the Pakistani Institute for Peace and Secular Studies to restrain the advance of extremist ideologies in Pakistan. And, finally, our students also write stories about some academic reports related to extremism and radicalisation so as to turn this content more accessible and interesting to the wider public.
Words Heal the World began as a simple idea of developing a win-win model that would benefit both organisations and students, and ultimately would challenge extremism on the online space. It began with only 5 partner organisations and now it has 21 all over the world. It began with only one partner university, UFRJ, and now it has two (the University of Westminster also embraced the project). It began only with a website and a Facebook page. And now we are active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and You Tube. Some students liked the project so much that they want to implement it their home countries.
We have done all that without funding and in order to keep it growing I will turn it into an organisation: the first one in the world that puts students as partners in the development of messages to challenge hate. The thing that I like most about this project is its potential to break the vicious circle that we are currently living into. It is remarkable when you realise things students can do when they feel empowered.
If we really want to defend democratic values and prevent the growth of extremist groups, I strongly believe we should start looking at undergraduate students not as passive actors, but as creative partners in this battle for hearts and minds.
Beatriz Buarque (founder of Words Heal the World)