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Dear friends and partners,
 
There are exciting developments afoot at ISD and as we head into 2022, we wanted to reiterate our New Year’s well wishes and give you a brief preview of some of the work we have lined up over the coming year.
 
On the disinfo front, our teams in France and the US are geared up to expose and mitigate information threats targeting the forthcoming elections in France and the US. Also, look out for our work on closed and encrypted online spaces, Chinese influence operations, and public health and climate disinfo, building on our COVID-19 projects and ‘COP26 War Room’.
 
At the same time our hate, extremism and conspiracy teams are ramping up ISD’s research and action programming around the world to prevent violence, targeted abuse and the mainstreaming of extremism both on and offline. Look out for our analysis of anti-lockdown movements, terrorist use of ‘fake news’ outlets across the Middle East, our ‘Future of Extremism’ series and our online monitoring of hate, conspiracy and extremist activity.
 
We are particularly excited about the expansion of ISD-US in 2022, and the Strong Cities Network will be building out regional hubs in the Balkans, West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
 
Finally internet governance will remain a central focus for our digital policy team this year. We will work to identify practical ways to achieve improved transparency and accountability, including in relation to platforms’ algorithmic systems. Our Digital Policy Lab will continue to convene policy makers and regulators from Five Eyes and European countries around this agenda, while we work with partners across the civic and research sectors on data access from social media companies, pursuant to the Democracy Summit side event that ISD co-hosted at the end of 2021.
 
Below we share some of the achievements we’re proudest of from across ISD's research, policy and action work last year, originally sent out on New Year’s Eve. We hope you’ll join us as we continue to work for a brighter and more hopeful 2022.
 
With best wishes from all of us here at ISD.

 

2021 in review

Research to Action: Conspiracy, Extremism and Hate

In a year which has seen the international landscape of extremism continue to shift profoundly, our experts and researchers examined key trends across Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Ireland and Canada, further expanding ISD’s unique datasets of transnational far-right extremist and conspiracy activity online. ISD Germany’s research on right-wing extremists' use of Telegram was covered by Zeit Online and has helped shape policy recommendations regarding extremist exploitation of ‘alt tech’.

At the same time, our analysts continued to lay bare the dynamics behind the QAnon conspiracy in Europe, on Facebook with the New York Times, in the wellness community for WIRED, and with Audible in the hit podcast series Finding Q; insights that have underpinned our continuing digital policy and government advisory work with Five Eyes and EU countries.

COVID-19 has been a crucible for all our areas of work, exemplifying the hybrid threat landscape we face, from weaponised hate and disinformation to conspiratorial extremism. Our team tracked how extremists amplified their reach with COVID-19, in Germany in January and the US in December, and examined anti-vaxx movements in France, Canada and Ireland.

We also charted the explosion of online antisemitism during the pandemic for the EU Commission feeding into the EU’s strategy on countering antisemitism. Building on this work, ISD’s researchers have developed a classifier to identify and analyse antisemitic speech in German online, and thanks to support from the German Interior Ministry, ISD Germany is currently developing a guidebook for Jewish communities to enhance their resilience to online harms.   

We continued to expose platform failures to address the infodemic across YouTube, Amazon, TikTok and Facebook, (including with the Washington Post) providing an evidentiary basis for ISD’s digital policy advisory work. And as part of our Future of Extremism series we sought to better understand the concerning exploitation of gaming platforms by extremists targeting ever younger constituencies online. In our Gaming and Extremism series we examined right-wing extremism across Steam, Discord, Twitch and DLive, as profiled in WIRED.

ISD’s experts in Islamist extremism uncovered and analysed one of the largest global repositories of Islamic State materials in 2021, analysis that has fed into our pioneering work on developing counter-curricula for children indoctrinated in ISIS schools; and in November we published a ground-breaking series providing insight into Generation Z and contemporary Salafism, from TikTok influencers to alt-right/Salafi-jihadist crossovers. Alongside briefing policy and communities across the Atlantic and addressing the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, this work has received substantial coverage in POLITICO, WIRED, and MEL, with more to come.

Beyond policy, our analysis has fed into the build-out of ISD’s educational resources and capacity building: in France ISD launched education resources amid the pandemic’s second wave and new French language Extreme Dialogue resources. We also joined with partners to deliver the ReNews project to promote media literacy across France, Poland and Turkey, complementing our UK flagship education programme Be Internet Citizens which continues to scale.

And in the US, ISD and the McCain Institute for International Leadership have developed a curriculum to counter domestic extremism and delivered training to over 380 US practitioners, ranging from mental health and behavioural specialists to law enforcement through a series of workshops and resources, with more to come next year aimed at building out the first US-wide counter-extremism practitioner network.

Mitigating new frontiers in disinformation: elections and more

ISD’s work to identify and expose information operations and online manipulation, whether driven by states or non-state actors, has gone from strength to strength, powered by our unique Beam capability. Developed over five years by ISD with CASM Technology, Beam won the US-Paris Tech Challenge for its innovative approach to information threats in October of this year.

Building on a year-long partnership with organisations across the US to understand and mitigate the forces leading up to the January 6th Capitol insurrection, ISD’s Election Integrity Unit turned its attention to both state and federal elections in Germany, noting a similar playbook in voter fraud misinformation as in the US elections and exposing a similar trend in gendered differences in discourse about candidates. ISD Germany’s team provided ongoing insights to Germany’s electoral commission and training to political parties on disinformation threats, while exposing platforms' failure to check digital threats to democracy. The Election Integrity Unit is now preparing to mobilise with partners in France to mitigate attacks on the 2022 French Presidential elections.

State-linked or sponsored information threats continued to feature heavily in our research, with two reports on Russian influence operation News Front (the second due to Facebook's failure to keep them off the site, despite multiple bans) and a collaboration with Die Welt examining a pro-CCP Twitter Network. A new report on Chinese influence operations will be released early in the New Year.

But the forces of disinformation and division are mobilising well beyond elections, exploiting ‘wedge issues’ to drive culture war narratives including through anti-refugee disinformation in Europe. In 2021, ISD partnered with climate organisations to develop the data infrastructure to track climate related information operations, publishing ground-breaking research on climate related online discourse. During COP26 we brought together analysts from across the climate sector to form the 'War Room', detecting and responding to information threats. Our climate work was covered by the BBC, NPR and the Guardian. Climate information threats will continue to be a focus for us in 2022.

ISD's Policy and Thought Leadership

In 2021, we launched our Future of Extremism series, bringing together expertise from across ISD to get ahead of the curve on a fast evolving environment in which the interplay of state and non-state actor disinformation, conspiracy and weaponised hate present an increasingly hybrid threat landscape, mainstreaming extremism and division. We have called for a human rights centred paradigm for extremism prevention, considered the policy responses needed for this new generation of threats, and developed a taxonomy for the classification of post-organisational violent extremist & terrorist content.

Throughout 2021 we continued to provide thought leadership and policy advisory across our issue areas. Our CEO Sasha Havlicek addressed the second Christchurch Call Leaders' Summit, presenting the Action Plan developed by the Workstream she co-chaired on online radicalisation and algorithms.

Our analysis has exposed the algorithmic amplification of hate and conspiracy across major platforms, including the promotion of white supremacist materials on Amazon with USAToday. In September we published one of the world's first comprehensive studies of hateful and extremist content on TikTok, feeding into ISD’s presentation on algorithmic amplification to the EU Internet Forum and underpinning our calls for improved transparency and accountability in tech governance. As part of the United States Summit for Democracy, ISD was asked to convene experts for a closed discussion on the issue of platform data access for research as part of a wider agenda on improving transparency, a central focus for ISD’s digital policy work in 2022.

In December we launched the second phase of the Digital Policy Lab, funded by the German Federal Foreign Ministry, and convening regulators and policymakers from the EU and 13 European and Five Eyes countries to help chart a course forward on digital policy and regulation.

Over the course of 2021, our senior team helped shape the debate and public understanding of ISD’s core issues. Sasha Havlicek spoke to The Cable podcast on domestic extremism in the US, provided Sky News with commentary on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, gave comment to the Wall Street Journal on Facebook's Oversight Board, and briefed the European Committee of Regions on disinformation as a threat to democracy.

The rest of the ISD team also made substantial contributions, with Moustafa Ayad explaining issues with platform regulation of Salafi-jihadi content to the Daily Mail; Chloe Colliver discussing the Jan 6th insurrection (twice) on CNN's Don Lemon Tonight, telling BBC Newsnight about the risks of radicalisation during the pandemic, and joining Jennie King at the EU Disinfo Lab's annual conference in Brussels; Jasmine El Gamal speaking to Vox's Today, Explained podcast in the episode 'Why is Guantanamo still open?'; Jake Davey helping to launch RUSI's Far-Right Extremism and Terrorism Research Programme; Milo Comerford and Jakob Guhl writing for the New Statesman on incels and terrorism in the aftermath of the Plymouth shootings; Julia Ebner making the case for misogyny to be recognised as a hate crime to Refinery 29; and Jiore Craig joining global thought-leaders at the Global Progress 2021 Summit in Rome.
 

Strong Cities Network in 2021

SCN  engaged over 1,200 mayors and other local representatives through a series of virtual events, including an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (‘Conversation on Kind and Compassionate Leadership’), the ‘Together for Safety’ webinar series co-hosted with Nordic Safe Cities, and an SCN-hosted side event at the UN General Assembly.

These global events supplemented regional summits, city exchanges, research and programming in contexts ranging from North Macedonia to Bangladesh where we produced a toolkit for multi-agency prevention and counter-extremism. Work continued in Jordan and Lebanon to deepen local prevention networks, which provided a model for our work in Nakuru, Isiolo and Kwale in Kenya. Our PROACT programme in Kenya also supported the creation of a Kenya Counties Network for Peace & Security with partnerships from the Council of Governors, National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), the Hassan Joho Foundation, and Human Rights Agenda (HURIA).

In addition to this on-the-ground programming, our regional summits in South Asia and Africa convened over 200 counter-extremism stakeholders to explore and situate city-led prevention and counter-extremism in the specific contexts of those regions.

In cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), ISD is providing capacity-building training to the Office of the Iraqi National Security Advisor, and is supporting three Iraqi cities with a view to bringing them into the Strong Cities Network in 2022.

Young Cities has expanded its footprint to new cities, with new youth-led initiatives being supported across Kenya, Belgium, and Jordan, where innovative youth training was delivered in the city of Zarqa.

ISD’s growing global footprint


ISD has long-standing programming on every continent and teams in place in the UK, US, France, North Macedonia, Lebanon, Jordan and Kenya.
 
In 2021, ISD opened its Berlin office under the leadership of Executive Director, Huberta von Voss, growing our team there to over 20 and delivering top-notch research, policy engagement and action, including extensive work to mitigate threats to democracy during the regional and federal elections this last year, in-depth analysis and policy advisory work on extremism across the ideological spectrum, and the delivery of a major pilot programme of digital citizenship education for adults - Business Council for Democracy (BC4D) - in partnership with the Robert Bosch and Hertie foundations, bringing to the table corporations like Nokia, Volkswagen, Kion Group AG and Akquinet and influential unions like IG Metall Bayern among others,.
 
ISD Germany’s research on right-wing extremists' use of Telegram was covered by Zeit Online; our recommendations are echoed in a recent speech by Germany's new Justice Minister; our analysis of Russian-controlled broadcaster RT DE's role in the COVID-sceptic community was featured in Tagesschau; and Huberta von Voss co-wrote an op-ed with Jakob Guhl about the 6th January Capitol Attack in Der Standard
 
We are now excited to be expanding ISD’s US team and operation with new US programmatic leads across our research, policy and strategy areas of work having been brought on in 2021 and hiring underway for significant new roles. We look forward to sharing more news about ISD US in 2022!
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Copyright © Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2021). Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales with company registration number 06581421 and registered charity number 1141069. Registered office address: PO Box 75769, London, SW1P 9ER, United Kingdom. All rights reserved. 
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