Former extremist teams up with Facebook to help users avoid the recruitment ‘rabbit hole’


Twenty years ago Mr Quinn turned his back on a life of hate as a white supremacist gang leader in Australia, a “rabbit hole” he fell down as a young man suffering bullying and isolation.

“A lot of the young people [in extremist groups] have trauma in their background, some come from really dysfunctional families, some even come from good families but they are looking for somewhere to voice their anger…so they go online and people recruit them,” he said.

A video was live-streamed by Brenton Tarrant before he allegedly inflicted a mass shooting on a Christchurch mosque.

A video was live-streamed by Brenton Tarrant before he allegedly inflicted a mass shooting on a Christchurch mosque.Credit:

Mr Quinn said extremist recruitment today is no different to 20 years ago, except that it happens online instead of at parties.

“Violent extremist groups, whatever is the growing trend they will try and recruit people through that, like eco-fascism, changing their propaganda. A lot of people are blaming the internet for the propagation of violence, but that’s just the world we’re in now,” he said.

“At EXIT we offer support to people so they can move away. Usually we talk online first, then we suggest a phone conversation and try and get in between them and [recruiters].”

Weapons allegedly used by Brenton Tarrant during the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch.

Weapons allegedly used by Brenton Tarrant during the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch.Credit:Twitter

The Australian launch follows that of an equivalent Facebook program in the US that linked users to Life After Hate, an organisation also founded by former violent extremists that provides crisis intervention.

Facebook has also updated its definition of terrorist content and organisations by expanding it from focusing specifically on acts of violence to also recognising “the threat of violence and the intention to coerce and intimidate…to achieve a particular political or ideological aim.”

While some of the changes to the social media platform were introduced before the Christchurch shooting massacre in March, the incident and the way social media was used has had a strong influence on the platform’s approach to countering online extremism.

Earlier this year Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Amazon signed up to the Christchurch Call to Action.

The tech giants agreed to a nine-point plan addressing the abuse of technology by terrorist groups at a meeting of G7 leaders hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Paris.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after the Christchurch Call to Action conference in Paris.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after the Christchurch Call to Action conference in Paris.Credit:EPA

Researchers at George Washington University recently examined hate groups and pages on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, VKontakte, finding about 1000 such hate “clusters” with a dense network of links between them.

The study developed a mathematical model to predict how members would behave when subject to different policies that were proposed to constrain them.

“These [clusters] can have up to 100,000 people in them. They advise each other on how to avoid detection, they copy each others tricks…it’s almost like Darwinian evolution.” said study author Professor Neil Johnson.

“When you’re under pressure you develop adaptations.”

As a reformed extremist Mr Quinn said vulnerable young people did not always know they were being recruited by hate groups. But if they did, they were often just waiting for someone to offer a helping hand or a way out.

“Back then if someone had come out and asked me, I would have taken it straight away. The only reason I was there was because nobody did,” he said.

with Nick Bonyhady

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