Students Enter Global Competition To Counter Extremism
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There are two battlefields in the war on ISIS. One involves weapons, the other, apps. ISIS is winning that last one, attracting young people through its deft use of social media. The U.S. is trying to counter that with the help of tech-savvy college students from around the world, brought to Washington in an unusual competition. Kirk Carapezza of member station WGBH reports.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: In Pakistan, the threat of terrorism is something students have learned to live with.
BASIL SAEED: We actually have to go to the university under the shelter of some snipers who are sitting on the roof of the university. It's, like, really terrible.
CARAPEZZA: Basil Saeed is a political science major at this Lahore University of Management Sciences. He says Pakistani students are growing numb to the violence.
SAEED: We have got used to it now. But when we tell others that we have to be actually protected, especially in our university, they just shocked.
CARAPEZZA: So, Saeed and his classmates are doing something about it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The name of our campaign is FATE, which stands for From Apathy To Empathy.
CARAPEZZA: Team FATE is part of an international competition sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Facebook and EdVentures Partners. In Washington, the three finalists are presenting their anti-radicalization projects, including West Point cadets.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And with so much violent extremism being spread on the Web, we needed to get in there.
CARAPEZZA: Italian students from the University of Lugano in Switzerland.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Extremists cannot be defeated by weapons alone.
CARAPEZZA: And team FATE from Lahore University of Management Sciences.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We found that it was a dire need to engage people in a dialogue against extremism.
CARAPEZZA: On stage at the State Department, the Pakistani students explained their campaign against extremism, which promotes education, tourism and poetry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).
CARAPEZZA: The group is targeting 4,000 students at their university, urging them to take a peace pledge. They're also reaching a global audience with a campaign on Twitter, a favorite platform of ISIS. So far, students from more than 90 countries have participated.
EVAN RYAN: When we're confronted with an issue like countering extremist ideologies and messaging, we know that we need to work with partners.
CARAPEZZA: That's Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state of educational affairs and the judge in this competition. Ryan says the State Department hopes to learn how to identify at-risk, disaffected youth from the very demographic it's trying to reach.
RYAN: These students know how to do that better than I do and better than many of us in the State Department might be able to.
CARAPEZZA: The U.S. government has been widely criticized for lacking perspective about the nature of violent extremism and backing futile campaigns.
What kind of social media campaigns did the U.S. government try in the past that you think have failed?
NASSIR WADDEDY: All of them.
CARAPEZZA: Nassir Waddedy is a Middle East consultant who studies radicalization and social media. He doubts the student projects will be effective in countering violent extremism.
WADDEDY: The problem is that the institutional fingerprint on these things kills its legitimacy from the get-go.
CARAPEZZA: That's why the government has actively avoided putting its fingerprint on these campaigns and discouraged students from using the State Department logo.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And we're ready to honor our first-place winners.
CARAPEZZA: After the presentations, the winners are announced.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Congratulations Lahore University of Management Sciences.
CARAPEZZA: Coming from a country where schools are often targeted, English major Mashel Imrin admits team FATE may be a bit idealistic.
MASHEL IMRIN: But I feel like we have to be when you are dealing with such a huge issue because if you're just pragmatic, you'll be like, OK, maybe there's no point going ahead with it.
CARAPEZZA: Countering violent extremism is a global effort. So when these students get home, they're planning to expand their campaign to other universities. Their $5,000 in prize money should help. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.