SFU Criminology's Advanced Issues in Cybercrime will see 5 of their classmates travel to Germany next week. Photo credit: The VAE Project.

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SFU students travel to Germany for international counter-extremism competition

December 01, 2016
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By Kamilah Charters-Gabanek.

After winning the semi-finals of an international counter-extremism competition,  five SFU Criminology undergraduate students and their professor will travel to Hamburg, Germany on Dec. 5 to represent Canada in the finals.

The competition, hosted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe , aims to combat extremist groups that use online marketing for recruitment purposes.

The students, led by SFU criminology professor Richard Frank, are enrolled in Frank’s fourth-year Advanced Issues in Cybercrime class.

This year, Frank decided to take a different approach to teaching the class after hearing about the U.S. State Department’s competition, Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism – the Power of Student Innovation.

The competition tasks university classes around the world to form a student-led social media agency that designs, pilots and implements digital initiatives to counter violent extremism. If Frank’s class wins the final round they will soon be on a plane again, flying to Washington, D.C. in February 2017 to participate in the State Department's contest finals.

Frank has used the competition as way to structure the course content. In just six weeks his class has developed a campaign, Voices Against Extremism, launched a social media initiative, and is hosting a community art show in Vancouver on Dec.1.

“The students have totally embraced this campaign,” says Frank. “They are really enjoying this and are really engaged. Even if community engagement can’t be measured, you can see a definite change in how the students are interested in the material. They’re out in the community and organizing themselves."

“It’s been a really different class from anything I’ve done before,” he says. “Although some colleagues do joke that my class is taking up all of the students’ time.”

Also involved in the project is SFU Criminology graduate student Vienna Lam. As the class' graduate mentor, Lam is running a two-day intensive workshop for the students before they depart for Germany.

"This anti-extremism campaign really demonstrates how student ingenuity, creativity and hard work can effect real social change. Together, we've raised awareness on various social media platforms, fundraised money and goods for the Muslim Food Bank, and created a safe space where community members can express what being Canadian means to them," says Lam.

Photo credit: The VAE Project.

Nathaniel Lam, a fourth-year criminology student in Frank’s class, echoes these sentiments.

“I think this class is very unique in that it allows us to not only apply knowledge that we learn in a hands-on environment, but also make a real impact in our community, be that our geographically proximate community or our virtual community,” says Lam.

Frank, whose area of research includes cybercrime and online terrorism, sees the Voices Against Extremism campaign as a way to positively counter the negative marketing campaigns of such extremist groups as ISIS.

“The Internet allows us to very selectively hear the message that we want to hear,” says Frank.

“Extremist discussion forums present a very one-sided view. But if you’re not interested or not engaging in this content, you become part of the silent majority that doesn’t counter it."

“For example, if someone stands on a corner yelling negative or hateful things, there usually is some reaction from the public. But online, we don’t have that feedback, so anyone can say anything and we don’t have that counter reaction to the negativity. We can read that and think it’s normal and not consider other views. That’s why these positive campaigns are important.”

Frank says many of the students have expressed interest in carrying on with the campaign even after the course is over.

To learn more about the Voices Against Extremism campaign visit the website or attend Art is #Here: Reshaping Identities art exhibition on Dec. 1 at the HiVE. Admission is free.

For more news from SFU Criminology, visit their page.

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UPDATE: The VAE class' project took home second prize at the OSCE competition in Germany, bringing home a $3000USD award. Congratulations!