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Offline Meets Online: A Fused Messaging Ecosystem in Response to Violent Extremism in Mindanao

Offline Meets Online: A Fused Messaging Ecosystem in Response to Violent Extremism in Mindanao
18th November 2020 Exan Sharief
Exan ShariefJoseph Franco
In Insights

Conflict in Mindanao is rooted in both socioeconomic factors and identity politics. At present, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is at the forefront of a transition from Moro secessionism to self-governance. Decades of internal conflict has made Mindanao an attractive destination for foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs).

As part of an initial stakeholder assessment in 2018, Equal Access International – Philippines (EAI PH) uncovered that the idea of ‘violent extremism’ meant differently among Filipino Muslims. Thus, violence should not be intrinsically linked to any religion, culture or politics. Violence could also be structural and a reflection exclusionary politics in the Philippines. Achieving inclusion and non-discrimination of vulnerable sectors such as the youth is often overlooked by government policies.  According to EAI PH’s respondents, the term ‘violent extremism’ is a process of ‘poisoning the mind’, manipulating emotions, which ultimately leads to violent actions. The cultural concept of maratabat or ‘clan pride’ is misappropriated by violent extremist organisations, seizing upon historical animosity and distrust between some Filipino Muslims and state-linked actors.

There is a semblance of recognition among policymakers in Manila of the need for ‘whole of nation’ approach. This can be seen with the government’s 2019 National Action Plan for Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism (NAP-PCVE). However, clear implementing guidelines for the NAP-PCVE remains up in the air. Meanwhile, contentious legislation of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 have only stoked fears of oversecuritised CVE in the Philippines. Ambiguity of national policy reflects poor social accountability, which reinforces recruitment narratives made by violent extremists. Military responses cannot provide a long-term solution.

Instead, there is a need to listen to and engage the credible voices of diverse community groups – amplify their stories through creative media platforms and sustain a generative feedback loop of messaging ecosystem that creates a pathway for call to action in order to make them become part of the solution for peace promotion. Looking beyond the mere dissemination of positive alternative narratives, building and promoting a ‘messaging hub’ technology was necessary to serve as a convergence platform among the existing initiatives and the peace building networks.

Through the OURmindaNOW Messaging Hub, seven regional nodes and two sub-regional nodes across Mindanao were primarily set up to provide an alternative opportunity for channeling the energies, aspirations and sentiments of vulnerable sectors, starting from the youth and extending to the adult groups. In each of these nodes, locally resonant media content and translated activities are discussed.

These nodes work with the graduates of EAI PH’s Tech Camps, Peace Promotion Fellowship and Hackathons. Graduates of EAI programmes are tasked to identify and innovate media technology solutions; which can promote cyber security, social media critical thinking and netiquette. EAI alumni also provide conflict early warning reporting utilising cross-platform communication such as online to transistor radio—a critical skill in Mindanao where broadband Internet coverage is very limited and radio communications is more prevalent.

An information ecosystem is also sustained at these nodes through the regular influx of community reports through a database management system being put in place. These are then processed and analysed for proper messaging campaigns launched. This includes dissemination in social media through hashtag campaigns such as the #howIbuildpeace and #loveitchangeit.

A case in point is the Saranggola serial radio drama for social change launched in known violent extremist recruitment sites in Mindanao. This serial drama involves a plot centered on the life of brothers who are both being radicalised in different tracks – one joining a militant group while the other took the path of securing education. Broadcasted in both social media and traditional media (i.e. radio) using multiple local languages, this drama engages a group of community members through a listening and discussion action group (LDAG). Select barangays or villages in Mindanao composed of more than 200 members were exposed to the said radio drama. Through the weekly LDAG sessions, they discussed the lessons and themes of each weekly drama episode for a period of at least six-month continuous exposure.

In a comparative study conducted on the efficiency of this intervention, a total of 1200 survey participants were randomly asked whether they listen to the drama or to a local radio show. The majority of the respondents affirmed interest and signaled learning from the drama episodes. Subsequently, any follow-up questions or requests for more information can be answered appropriately through a collaborative effort from the members of the Messaging Hub composed of the different sectors of the community including the local government, media practitioners, academics, youth leaders, and women’s rights activists. This approach takes into consideration the decision environment of at-risk individuals and implements the concept of ‘mutually reinforcing adaptive programming’.

In the current circumstances of mythomaniac radicalisation and recruitment, media and information maturity is more critical than mere literacy. Empathetic relationship building has become more necessary than countering narratives. An inclusive communication ecosystem is a response to alienation from society.