White nationalists and jihadists are starting to realize they have a lot in common

Extremism researcher Moustafa Ayad talks about how religious extremists from across the world are starting to come together, and what that means for the rest of us

Episode Summary

Extremist Muslims and extremist Christians hate each other, or at least they did before the meme wars began.

It’s hard to believe, but extremist Muslims and Christians are actually starting to cheer each other online. After presidents Trump and Biden ended the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, white nationalists in this country cheered on what they called the “Chadliban” as it took back control of the country. A world away, ISIS supporters are starting to use white nationalist meme characters and phrasing, even adapting Christian nationalist images for an Islamic audience.

So what’s behind this strange synergy of the world’s worst people? In this episode, we’ll be talking about all of this with Moustafa Ayad. He’s a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and an expert in Islamic extremism and online meme culture.

A video of the conversation is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for being here today, Mohammed.

MOUSTAFA AYAD: Thanks for having me, Matt. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SHEFFIELD: And Mohammed’s on the road right now, so I appreciate him taking time from his drive to educate us about all this strangeness that we’re going to talk about. So before we get into some of the details, I’m going to show on screen a couple of the memes that we’re talking about here.

This one here is a Nazi flag with a Confederate stars and bars. And then also some Arabic words. What does it say in Arabic?

AYAD: Yeah, that’s generally, it’s the seal of the prophet and it’s used by ISIS as well as other terrorist groups as part of their flag,

SHEFFIELD: Okay. So what does it say though?

AYAD: “There’s no God but God,” essentially, I would say it’s about the monotheism of Islam.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. And then I’m going to put another one on there as well. This one is another image.

This one is featuring Pepe the Frog who was an alt-right character as people know. And then there are some other characters on there. So who are those other characters for people who don’t know who they are?

AYAD: So those are Wojacks and they’re escaping Afghanistan. Obviously, the scenes from Afghanistan and the U.S. troop pull-out are featured heavy in this. What’s important about this is that it was used initially on a web forum called Kiwi Farms, which is a white nationalist, alt-right sort of hub. And then it made its way slowly into what I would call alt-Islamist circles, so groups that are supportive of the Taliban generally and other Islamist-inspired organizations.

SHEFFIELD: Mmm-hmm. And some of the other elements for those who are listening, I have to describe them. So we’ve got, it says they’re in front of a building trying to escape the United States embassy with a McDonald’s logo and some rainbow gay pride flags, presumably. And you’ve got one person on the wheels of the helicopter who, presumably, they’re trying to convey that individual is gay. And the flags are burning, and meanwhile Pepe in Taliban clothing is just sitting there enjoying himself.

And then let me turn into another one here. So yeah, we’ve got a bunch of Pepe The Frogs—

AYAD: Sure, this was the post-fall of Kabul when the Taliban were inside of, it was either the presidential palace or parliament building. And so their faces have been replaced with various faces of Pepe. And, of course, the sort of a look, a chagrined look on their faces as they are essentially “owning” quote unquote America with this pose.

SHEFFIELD: And who made this image?

AYAD: So this also started in far-right and sort of alt-right circles, and then gravitated into these alt-Islamist circles and their use. And this one specifically came with texts that essentially said ‘Jihad will win,’ in the Islamist circles. And then similarly, in the sort of white supremacist alt-right space, this was about the “owning” again of America.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And let’s see, I guess we’ll maybe end with this one. This image here is a slightly different.

AYAD: So this is a GigaChad in front of you. What is essentially a Chad light character who is supposedly like the prototypical, like alpha male. He’s dressed in the corrections orange along with a kufi, which is an Islamic hat.

And essentially under the text, it says “Florida corrections officer hospitalized after vicious attack for touching an inmate’s Koran.” And what they’re showing essentially through this, the juxtaposition of the GigaChad and the text, is that an alpha Muslim protects his religion at all costs. And so it is one of congratulations and praise of of attacks that are essentially born out of a need to defend one’s identity, and that identity being Muslim.

SHEFFIELD: So now that we’ve provided a little bit of the context here, let’s talk about some of the history here. Now it is true that, as an idea, people with far-right Islamic views and far-right Christian views, there’s been somewhat of an affinity over the years.

So there’s this far-right philosopher named Julius Evola, who in his writing, he expressed significant admiration for Islamic fundamentalism and said that he liked it for various reasons, including subjugation of women and encouragement of stereotypical masculine behaviors.

But kind of what we’re seeing here is a bit of a parallel between groups that hated each other for a long time in the west, far-right Christian denominations, far-right Protestants or Catholics and various denominations for a long time, they all hated each other. They were in very vicious, in some cases, literal war. They went to war with each other a lot.

But over time, as you had the growth of secularism and science and things like that, people who retained the belief in the traditional fundamentalist reading of Christian texts gradually decided, ‘Oh you know what? We actually have more in common than we realize.’

Is that something that’s happening? Do you think with with regard to this new far-right fusion with Islam?

AYAD: Yeah. There’s always been some affinity amongst white nationalists, Islamist ideologues for their principled stances in regards to their identity and their religious identity specifically.

So you have groups and group leaders who have often spoken about how Muslims are principled, the tactics that they used in order to unite them in the face of a common enemy is something that we should borrow from and ultimately use against our enemies.

And there’s also similar, let’s say, anathema to the LBGTQ community, movements such as Black Lives Matter, or feminists similarly, seculars, and liberals. There’s a shared hatred that runs through both circles. And that is essentially where the convergence is happening.

It’s not necessarily a wholesale embrace of the other, but there is a bleed where it’s cool to borrow from each other’s shared hate and responses and sort of vilification of others. Because as we’ve seen, especially with the Taliban, is that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has highlighted a number of things to both camps. One: the Western world, and the new liberal order is a failure and it cannot essentially counteract or ultimately deal with an identity-based traditionalist group, like the Taliban.

And so that emboldens both Islamists on one side and then white nationalists on the other side, who see this idea of “Western degeneracy” as the common problem of our times. And that includes, the things I just mentioned, like LBGTQ, permissiveness, feminism, racial equality. All of these things are a threat, and if they fight them together, they are stronger.

And what we saw on, for instance, Twitter, there were hashtags such as OneStruggle, in which you saw white nationalists using Confederate imagery, alongside pictures of the Taliban. You saw Nazi imagery alongside pictures of the Taliban. And it was all in some instances really about America being “cucked,” so to speak, in the language of the alt-right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think also the America angle is definitely a big thing, hating America, or hating the West. And this emerging phenomenon, it does show that, while the specific sort of theological ideas are different, ultimately they have the same personal, ideology, authoritarianism, a opposition to pluralism, and a hatred of democracy because it allows people who have different opinions to have a voice. Would you agree with that?

AYAD: Yeah, definitely. The hatred of liberal democracy and its failures and sort of its support for minorities or minority rights is something that is a threat to these movements.

And one part of that threat is creating a divide internally in the communities that they quote unquote “represent.” If you are a part of a white nationalist group, or you are part of an Islamist group, or just support Islamist groups and specifically those with a violent intention, you’re going to want to draw clear distinctions between what it means to be Muslim versus what it means to be essentially a traitor to your religion.

And the same is happening on the white nationalist side, where ‘you were a traitor to the race.’ And that sort of convergence point and dividing of the internal or the intra community sort of dynamics creates for a ‘us versus them’ narrative that is then magnified through the support basis. And it goes beyond just the internal and it also extends to ‘I need to create clear dividing lines between our enemies and those who are in support of those enemies from within our own communities are just as bad if not worse than our enemies.’

SHEFFIELD: Our external enemies.

AYAD: Yeah. Correct. Absolutely. And so that fight really is happening there. They’re speaking to that core when they attack sort of external enemies as well. There’s this focus on quote unquote “libtards,” libtard Muslims in some of these communities. And it’s the same thing on the white nationalist side.

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing about that tactic though, is that it’s effective as a way of making a religious argument, because basically you’re saying these people who oppose us are not the real Muslims, they’re not the real Christians. And in fact, we know more about the Quran and know more about the Bible than they do. We actually believe our religion, unlike them.

And it’s an effective leverage point, because also a lot of people who do identify as moderate Christians or moderate Muslims, they don’t believe everything that’s in their scriptures. And so they don’t read it that often because they see it as a guidepost generically, but not something that they need to understand every single jot and tittle in each respective book. So is that’s something that I’ve seen in Christian fundamentalist, white nationalist groups. Is that something that exists in the Islamic world as well?

AYAD: A hundred percent. Especially in some of these hard-line circles I’m talking about, they are denigrating again, liberal Muslims for their lack of understanding of their own religion, quote unquote, liberal Muslims that support LBGTQ rights, for instance.

This to them is a sin beyond belief. You are essentially supporting an enemy, a traitor. And for that, there’s only one punishment, and that punishment is not just be outcast and demonized for that belief, but similarly, for some sort of violent end for taking that stance.

In some of these closed circles, you’ll see photographs of mosques in certain places in North America where there’s an LBGTQ flag flying, or there’s a woman imam leading prayer. And the comments in regards to this— and we’re talking about mosques, incredibly sacred places where you go pray and where the community, the umma so to speak, comes together to unite in prayer and break fasts during Ramadan— and the comments towards that particular mosque in that particular instance were things like me pulling up to the mosque and spraying it with bullets.

And so to think about what sort of mindset someone has to think of their own religious compatriots as an enemy worthy of slaughter, simply for expressing a belief of being open is scary. And frankly, it mimics a lot of what on the white nationalist side in regards to some of their thoughts about, liberal white people.

SHEFFIELD: It’s something that people who are moderate Muslims, moderate Christians, that they need to understand that, these people who you think of as just, ineffectual, stupid, crazy people, they hate you with every fiber of their being just as much as they hate the groups that they’re more known for hating. And that you’re on the target list as well.

AYAD: And they make that known. Like it’s not, they’re not hiding it. They’re not trying to win you over. What they’re trying to do is separate the weak from the strong, in these instances within their own communities, because they have no time for that. This is not a debate that should be had to them.

The debate is whether or not you are supportive of Muslim identity, Sharia law as a governing structure for everything. It is not a debate. And in fact, the idea that we are supporting— so within the Muslim community, people who refer to themselves as moderate Muslims or liberal Muslims, or even in the press, referring to people as moderate imams versus radical imams. To them, and this is the problem we’ve constructed these dividing lines within Islam, the press has, sort of a weird dividing sort of categorization of Muslims that has nothing to do with reality. We are all Muslims. This creation of a moderate Muslim creates the enemy for a jihadist or a supporter of jihadist movements.

SHEFFIELD: Just going back to something you said also that, the idea that they’re not trying to convert their co-religionists who disagree with them. That’s a great point, because really what they’re trying to do is intimidate. That’s what they’re trying to do. I’m gonna use a video here. In the United States, we’ve had a bunch of different school board meetings that have been sabotaged, and people have showed up, engaged in violence and made death threats.

And this one here is just a compendium of what they’ve been doing. And it’s important to realize here that the point of these tactics isn’t to make you agree with them or to say that they’re right. It’s to make you be quiet and to go away. So I’m going to play just as a short video here.



(Begin video)

MAN #1: You want to wear snot on your face all day? Fine. You do you boo, but don’t force that non-science, Satanic BS on our kids.

MAN #2: The wind that is blowing through the black people, through the white people, through the Chinese people, they are blowing through your veins!

WOMAN #1: These are demonic entities in all the schoolboards of all the United States of America. Go back to fucking medical school!

MAN #3: By putting masks on these kids faces, you can’t identify any of them! Voting on this tells me: ‘You guys support sex trafficking!

WOMAN #2: The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers, and also the Bible. And these guarantee my freedom and yours and our children’s to breathe oxygen.

MAN #1: You’ve dealt with sheep. Now prepare yourself to deal with the lions!

MAN #4: What you’ve done, you’ve poked the cubs!

WOMAN #3: And no one is going to mess with our cubs.

WOMAN #4: And let me tell you something! Go home tonight and take one of these spoons and put it on your vaccination spot. Guess what? It’s going to stick to you!

WOMAN #5: Are you going to the state and asking where they got their science? If you’re going to tell me to CDC, come on guys.

REP. MADISON CAWTHORN: Forcing our children to wear a mask is nothing short of psychological child abuse on the altar of wokeness.

MAN #5: Do you have any idea what’s in a vaccine? E. coli, pig blood, detergent.

WOMAN #6: This is not a joke. There are Covid camps.

WOMAN #7: Concentration camps, or something that the Nazis did.

MAN #2: Your children and your children’s children will be subjugated! They will be asked: “Have you been a good little Nazi? Hail Fauci!”

WOMAN #4: God bless! (rings bell). See ya!

(end video clip)

SHEFFIELD: And that’s only just a small sampling of the things that these people have been engaging in. These are acts of intimidation. They have abandoned persuasion.

AYAD: Just listening to some of those, like the the invocation of lions. In Islamic state circles, they often refer to themselves as lions. They refer to their core of quote unquote “child soldiers” as the “Cubs of the Caliphate.” And so when you hear these sort of things that have some convergence across extremist circles, you begin to see that, it’s about a utilizing the sort of imagery of strength versus weakness within the communities themselves to separate the quote unquote “lions from the sheep” to use the quote that was in that thing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I guess there’s some other aspects that we can talk about here and we should, but let’s maybe talk about where some of this came from in the Islamic world. So the idea of Salafi Islam, what’s what is that tradition and when did it get started?

AYAD: So it’s a sort of the tradition of the first three generations of the pious salaf. They are essentially the first original descendants of Islam at its founding. And it cuts across a wide spectrum. When you talk about salafis are not a sect. So you have essentially what can be bundled roughly and rudimentarily into sort of bands of apolitical salafis, political salafis, and then salafi jihadists, so to speak.

And within each of these, there’s a spectrum again of ideology. So within these sort of bands, there’s an even more diversity of ideas, thoughts, ideologies that each will utilize to essentially separate themselves from the rest of this sort of the Muslim umma.

SHEFFIELD: But as a political movement though, when did this really start?

AYAD: It’s been around for a while and you’ve got connections since the founding of the religion itself.

SHEFFIELD: The modern incarnations. How about that?

AYAD: So let’s say that it’s linked very closely to the modern founding of the state of Saudi Arabia and draw out of it, emanates from there. But it’s also diverse. You’ve got Egyptian salafis, you’ve got Moroccan salafis. You’ve got a range of different sort of salafi persuasions and contexts.

SHEFFIELD: I guess I’m going for, in terms of, some of this kind of is an outgrowth of the failed Pan-Arabist movement of the 1960s and seventies. Post colonialism, there was an attempt in a few different Arab nations to try to unify in some sense, and to have a much bigger power on the global stage. And ultimately that didn’t work. And it seems the more religious aspect of Islam as a political movement stepped in after that, is that right?

AYAD: That’s part of it. And it views a pan Islamic movement in some of these political circles, in which we can unite around a sort of common set of beliefs, hard-line beliefs and in some instances, fight for those beliefs and a lot of that stems from a number of historical points throughout the Middle East and North Africa. And yeah, definitely, Pan-Arabism fed into some of that. And the failure of Pan-Arabism, more specifically.

But you had Pan-Arabists, you had Gamal Abdel Nasser, but you also had people who believed the Pan-Arab dream and in Iraq and Syria as well. And when Saddam Hussein in Iraq was faced with sanctions, what he did was he returned to supporting hard line Islamist inside of his own country. And they were used as a weapon essentially.

SHEFFIELD: A weapon against whom, and for what?

AYAD: A weapon against, eventually, against others. You prop up these groups in order to essentially create schisms internally, but also in preoccupying others with the concept of religious revival, as well as if there’s going to be another conflict, you want a sort of a group of people that you can rely on that will, that have a belief in a higher power, a higher mission than simply country. “God and country” is a big thing.

SHEFFIELD: It’s a better motivator than “country.”

AYAD: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. You are fighting for a higher power. You’re a set of ideals. Now, this doesn’t necessarily there’s very specific context. It’s not necessarily a part of ultimately the salafi milieu, but it is something just to, to ruminate on, in, in regards to Pan-Arabists. There was also massive campaigns to arrest torture and ultimately expel a number of these people over the years. Gamal Abdel Nasser also it was played a big role in that. (Clean previous sentence) Gamal Abdel Nasser also similarly welcomed Nazis as part of a response to, and cracking down on the Egyptian populace.

SHEFFIELD: If you look at a history, there are a number of instances of people who were trying to use, to leverage violent radicals as a way of distraction from their own oppressions.

And Saudi Arabia is another example, I would say. You have a country that literally does not have democracy except in only minimal tiny areas. Literally a monarchy. And they basically seem to have fanned the flames of politicized salafi Islam as a way of saying, look, we’re taking care of you this way. You don’t have to worry about this voting stuff or having rights. We’re taking care of

AYAD: It’s important to understand that Wahhabism as a whole is also incredibly different than most Salafism. It’s fairly—

SHEFFIELD: Well yeah.

AYAD: Yeah, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And they nurtured Wahhabism within that idea, within that strategy. Does that, is that, would you agree with that in Saudi Arabia?

AYAD: Definitely. And they definitely exported a lot of that.

SHEFFIELD: And as a way of destabilizing Shia nations as well, because if you can get a bunch of fired up people, a bunch of fired up terrorist Wahhabists to start trying to destabilize Shia nations, that’s good for you as far as the—

AYAD: But you also have to remember. You have to remember that regime similarly welcomed U.S. troops in the nineties on its land. And then essentially it helped push when Osama bin Ladin wanted to work with the Saudi regime on pushing back Iraq out of Kuwait. And that led essentially to the modern founding of what we’re talking, about in regards to allowing us troops on, on, on soil. That is—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That’s when he said yeah.

AYAD: Specifically in his call to arms.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, so it backfired in some ways for them definitely. So I guess more contemporaneously here though, some of the other crossover stuff that we’ve seen is like the idea of the Gamer Uprising and Al-Qaeda. Talk about that a little bit. What is Gamer Uprising for those who don’t know?

AYAD: So it’s linked to a prominent white nationalist and it’s a web forum that was set up, essentially it’s an incredibly hateful space. And when you talk about convergence, and you think about things like these spaces, drawing traffic into— so we looked at essentially a series of websites across the far-right spectrum as well as the Islamist spectrum. We looked at incoming and outgoing traffic and Gamer Uprising is actually channeling traffic into a prominent Al-Qaeda website. It signals something to us as researchers that there’s a bit of a interaction there that is being under researched or under misunderstood.

And that is one prominent aspect of what we’re seeing in terms of convergence, where you have these hubs for alt-right, far-right movements essentially feeding into, or sending traffic into terrorist group websites. And they’re trying to glean things such as tactics, understanding ideologies, what they can get out of it in English if they can. And it’s this odd sort of milieu that is happening online in both camps.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then I guess one of the things that kind of grew out of that collaboration was the idea of One Struggle. And you talked about that a little bit in terms of symbology using Confederate Nazi and Islamic supremacist iconography. But how widespread is this idea of One Struggle?

AYAD: It was really, I think it really peaked in mid August with the fall of Kabul. You had a number of these sort of alt-right characters, white nationalists on public platforms, like Twitter, sharing the One Struggle hashtag.

You can still find this stuff. It’s online. It’s up on and available. Even pictures of crusaders alongside, and I’m talking about the Christian crusades, alongside Ottoman-looking soldiers talking about coming together to fight a common enemy. And in front of them is a horde of, LBGTQ sort of community, BLM community. And they’re talking about coming together to fight this common enemy. So One Struggle becomes a rallying cry for, we have something more in common with people that we believe are our enemy than we do with the actual people that are within the white race or within Islam.

And it was happening, not just on sort of white supremacist, alt-right side, it was also happening on the Islamist side simultaneously where they’re going ‘Look at these guys they’re supporting the Taliban and they’re going that’s because we can show them. And ultimately we have the same enemies, liberal Muslims LBGTQ the concept of secular laws.

SHEFFIELD: And secular knowledge even.

AYAD: Correct.

SHEFFIELD: This is such an important point to understand though, because if you want to adequately and effectively combat these specific ideologies, you have to understand how they gather success and how they gather adherents. It isn’t the ideas themselves that matter.

So specific interpretations of the Bible or of the Quran, like anybody can have their own interpretations. Those don’t really mean anything, ultimately. What matters is that they’re motivated by a desire to destroy pluralism and to take away women’s rights, to take away religious minority rights, things like that. And so if you want to combat that, you have to understand and promote the opposite of what they want.

To destroy it, you have to promote these values and promote them as such, and tell people why they’re good. Because I think that’s one of the biggest failings of the current liberal order is that it just assumes that people would agree with it. Because philosophically, it makes a lot more sense.

And, in terms of, the improvements to standard of living, et cetera, like these have been objective things that have improved compared, before modernity. But the idea that you have to explain the philosophy behind it seems to have mostly fallen out of interest, I think, in both the Western world and, it seems like maybe to some degree in Islam, there’s a renewed appreciation for some of these ideals and to argue on their behalf, or do you think not?

AYAD: So I think there’s still an incredibly vibrant debate happening, online specifically. And what I’m talking about is a sort of fringe community within these circles about sort of principles and ideals and what it means to be a quote unquote quietist Salafi, apolitical salafi versus a political salafi. And these are rich debates. And they’re also places where there’s a lot of conflict and internal schism as well.

However, what we are seeing is a lot more, and again, within these fringe communities, a sort of, an attack and an attack on the external, as well as internal threats that they see and essentially an ability to be somewhat what I call a little bit ideologically elastic. So being able to go over and span and borrow bits and pieces from different ideologies, but ultimately snapping back to where I stand in my ideology is that, but using those pieces to illustrate and speak to a wider audience about what I represent, and that is what’s different, that is what’s new.

It’s the ability to be malleable and somewhat able to take and borrow from the alt-right or white supremacist sort of space to illustrate my points as a, in some instances, jihadist. Which we’ve not seen previously, which is what’s scary. I think it’s how are we going to ultimately try to counter or essentially debate in that space is it’s going to become much more pronounced over the next few years.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that’s why I was saying that, basically, you have the dynamic where you’ve got, a system that exists that doesn’t know how to argue for itself. Doesn’t know why it came into being and cannot morally justify itself because it’s never even thought about that it couldn’t exist. What a lot of people haven’t realized is that, just because you can’t conceive of an idea, that doesn’t mean that other people don’t believe it. In fact they can.

And it’s important to emphasize these are minorities of both Christians and Muslims that, and even white evangelicals. If you look at that percentage of people who are not vaccinated in the United States, it’s only about 30% of them who are really holding out and being very antagonistic toward that. So we’re talking about small minorities within each of these traditions, but they have never been convinced of the values of modernity, of secularism, of pluralism, of women’s rights, of LGBTQ rights, of common citizenship across race and things like that.

They were never convinced of these things. And effectively, the internet has given them the ability to organize because before that, their sort of irrationality, it made it so that they were always fighting each other so much that they could never build infrastructure, but with the advent of social media, that infrastructure was built for them and handed to them for free by people who were just trying to get rich.

And I guess that’s another area where you’ve been looking at recently with regard to Facebook in the Islamic world, where, and more broadly speaking, the non-English speaking world, that Facebook has almost no ability to understand content or moderate it. I mean, as bad as it is in the United States with fake news and conspiracy theories and hate groups, in a lot of ways, it’s worse in other countries because Facebook has far fewer moderating staff. And either they’re censoring stuff that shouldn’t be censored, or they don’t even know like in the Afghanistan, they seem to have no ability or a handle on the content there, right?

AYAD: All of these contexts are incredibly different. And when we talk about, for instance, the Arabic speaking world you are talking about dialects, you’re talking about pop culture references that come with being Egyptian versus being Moroccan versus being Yemeni. You’ve got conflicts brewing in some countries, and you don’t have conflicts brewing in some countries where you have numerous groups, some of which are designated terrorist groups, some of which are not.

And then you have a number of different dynamics there that require any sort of manual or automated moderation to ultimately understand this whole picture.

So if I can create, for instance, specific niche communities in Egypt that don’t necessarily use, for instance, things like ISIS branding or Al-Qaeda branding for the content that they’re putting out in their groups or on their pages or through their profiles. What you’re doing is you’re short wiring, the system that is built for AI detection for looking for these things.

And you’re ultimately also by using memes and quote unquote “Chan culture,” this things that were born out of Reddit and 4chan and 8chan, to talk about your ideology and spread it farther. You are essentially bypassing both automated and manual detection of quote unquote “terrorist content” or “extremist content” on these platforms. And that’s something that is happening in all these different contexts at the same time.

And so how are you going to effectively police this? If you’re seeing users adapt and continually adapt, in fact, their content to where they’re not using official content, for instance, which is easily detectable by AI versus things that they’re creating, like edit videos where you’re using a John Legend songs over a series of ISIS fighters going to war.

And even then, it’s mind-numbing because these are people who are fervently against the use of music, right? And that music is essentially a haraam space. A no-go, something that Muslims should not partake in. However, they’re using this to spread their content because they understand the value of creating the thing that is a shareable consumable on these platforms.

So you get this sort of conflict of the ideological stances that they represent versus the need to spread and ultimately seed your content further and get those views, get those likes. And where the platforms fail is keeping up to pace with what’s happening on the ground and ultimately protecting the vulnerable communities that are in those contexts from the harms from authoritarian regimes and ultimately terrorist groups and extremist groups within those countries.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it seems like Facebook basically put very little effort or thought into any of these issues. It seems to me, what do you think?

AYAD: Overall, what I think is that they built a system that does not keep pace with the challenge. And they also invested in some of the wrong things.

So I ultimately, I think there’s major failings there. And there are things that we have been championing for a really long time in regards to that sort of moderation challenge. It just recently came out in the Facebook Papers that have been in 17 different outlets across the world, these are things as simple as what I just described the augmenting of terrorist content.

If you’re telling me that you can pick up this content at a fast clip, what I’m seeing is a completely different picture. What I’m seeing is the proliferation of a new form of content, new content development that is getting around these systems. And you need to hone whatever you’ve got in place in order to go after it. That’s the decision the company needs to take. And if it doesn’t take that decision, these communities will continue to grow and metastasize into something much worse.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. As we’re getting close to the end here, let’s talk a little bit about the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. What’s your role over there and what do you guys do over there?

AYAD: We are an Institute that was founded over 15 years ago to ultimately research and look at the nexus of hate and polarization and extremism, both online and offline. We operate in a number of different countries. We’re founded in London. I am the executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia, under which we do a number of programs working with local authorities, as well as multi civil society basis in places like Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan, as far as the field as Senegal. And ultimately work on building programs that can create a first line of defense for things like hate, polarization, and extremism.

At the same time, we look at how the online sphere in these places ultimately affect what we’re seeing offline in regards to, again, hate, polarization, and extremism in these contexts. And we designed programs that are a forward leaning and ultimately collaborative, that build on what local local stakeholders are seeing on the ground, while also looking at that online space from a different lens, not just the violent extremism or terrorist group lens, which is something we’ve been doing for years and understand incredibly well, but also looking at where there are these polarizing points and movements that are ultimately creating and sowing the ground for violence and for division, and for increased hate.

So when you look at things like the full spectrum of extremism, like from white supremacy to violent Islamism, what we’re seeing are commonalities in the way that they function. And the way they ultimately want to divide spaces online and offline. We work with a number of stakeholders, again, countries like Jordan Lebanon, Kenya.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah. And it’s definitely an organization worth checking out. What’s your web address for those who are listening?

AYAD: ISDglobal.org. You can find a report. So we make all our reports publicly available. If you’re interested, we’ve looked at the harassment of female politicians in the U S, we’ve looked at how Islamists are ultimately getting around moderation after it’s on primary platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, cool. And on Twitter, you are MoustafaAyad, that’s M-O-U-S-T-A-F-A-A-Y-A-D, for those listening.

And we’ll link to your Twitter bio and the Daily Beast article you wrote about some of this crossover content stuff between extremist groups. So, yeah, I definitely encourage people to check that out. Thanks for being here Moustafa.

AYAD: Thank you for having me Matt. This is a great platform and it was a pleasure speaking to you.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.