The climate has shifted since the Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) program’s humble beginnings with 23 schools in the spring of 2015. According to EdVenture Partners CEO Tony Sgro, in his opening remarks at a P2P regional competition in Germany earlier this month, the tone from university professors has evolved from being “paralyzed by fear” to “motivated to act.” On the heels of Paris, San Bernardino and other terrorist attacks, professors were once reticent to enlist their classrooms in solutions to challenge extremism, but now realize, “We can do something proactive to make communities safer by unleashing the creativity of young people.”
And varied, creative approaches are exactly what top three finalist teams presented in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) P2P regional competition, December 7–8, in Hamburg, Germany. The programming was a side event to the 23rd OSCE ministerial council which included many dignitaries and offered students one-on-one time with leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion.
The three finalist teams were selected from over 40 European schools participating this term, representing 23 OSCE participating states. Ultimately, the final standings of the winning teams were:
First place – University of Ljubljana (Slovenia)
Second place – Simon Fraser University (Canada)
Third place – Lund University (Sweden)
University of Ljubljana won top honors with their “Think Again” campaign by developing a cloud-based algorithm that verifies media reports in Slovenia. With only a 2 million population, and despite the low number of refugees who have stayed in-country, the media continues to “create fear and unease,” according to the team — particularly among their target audience, fellow students at the university. By creating a database of Slovenian words that most contribute to these negative implications, their algorithm allows students and the general public to check individual media reports for negative, emotionally-charged words. Their proprietary “Fear Index” measures and shows the extent to which articles are fear inducing. By employing their original website, Facebook, YouTube, and a series of live events, they were able to further promote their campaign.
Second place, Simon Fraser University, from Vancouver, British Columbia, created a campaign titled, “Voices Against Extremism.” Its aim? To counter violent extremism by humanizing refugees and minorities, educating individuals through engagement, respecting different cultures from around the world, and lastly, empowering their target audiences to be a voice against extremism. Thus, their four goals formed the acronym H.E.R.E., which points to the immediate, localized and positive impact that can occur when people work together to counter extremism. Key elements of their campaign included “Stories of Resilience,” a collection of stories about immigrants in their communities, and an art gallery event to highlight the diversity of their community, because art, according to the team, is a “unique form of expression which can be understood by all the members of our society regardless of age, culture or language.”
Lund University came in third place with their campaign, “Färgstarkare Tillsammansis,” which translates to mean “More Brightly Colored,” “Stronger Together” or even “Brilliant Together.” Their word associations to color were meant to imply racial, ethnic or cultural differences. Rather than using these differences to create social exclusion, the team suggests society can instead be made more beautiful and colorful by embracing those differences. This was the guiding strategy for their counterspeech tactics to combat social exclusion, which they believe leads to extremist acts. They encouraged young people to raise their voices by providing them with tools — quick examples of acts they can do in everyday life to prevent social exclusion, with social media challenges and student-generated images to reinforce these ideas. Their “Brilliant Together” event on November 30, which asked people to put on colorful clothes in protest of the violent demonstrations of extremist, xenophobic groups in Sweden on this date, sent such a strong and positive message, their university has decided to make this an annual event on campus.
There are two more upcoming regional competitions for Near East South Asia (NESA) and African countries, before all 250+ teams are given one last opportunity to compete at the international level. The Facebook Global Digital Challenge in Washington, DC, on February 2 marks the top honors each of these teams can earn. Peer to Peer is sponsored by Facebook, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of State and EdVenture Partners.
As Klaus Gorny, representing corporate communications for Facebook in Germany, said in his remarks during this OSCE event, “We understand our responsibility and actively engage in the fight against hate and extremism online. We also believe that countering hate and extremism require both positive messaging and narratives that challenge and push back. … Fighting online extremism and hate speech needs combined voices … and we believe that young voices can be very powerful ones in challenging hate online.”