How Funny YouTube Videos Are Being Used To Counter Violent Extremism

In conflicts characterized by the use of assault rifles, explosives, and even chemical arms, humor is Mythos Labs' weapon of choice.

They say that "laughter is the best medicine," but can it provide an antidote to extremist messaging? Mythos Labs founder Priyank Mathur certainly thinks so. His company counters terrorist propaganda with comical online videos, and that's no joke. In conflicts characterized by the use of assault rifles, explosives, and even chemical arms, humor has become his weapon of choice.

"It helps to understand a little bit the shift that's happened in extremist messaging over the last few years that's really necessitated these kinds of different solutions," Mathur told the attendees at U.N. Women's June 26 "Comedy For Equality" event.

When Al Qaeda was the biggest terrorist threat, he explained, extremist messaging was told through "very boring" narratives with low production quality. The only mediums the terrorist organization used were television and print media, even though the internet and YouTube were already in existence. 

Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown
Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown

"Communications were really centralized, as in Al Qaeda had basically a propaganda department that controlled everything that went out, and they had to oversee it," Mathur noted. "Well, that's all changed in large part because of ISIS. But it's not just ISIS  — far-right groups, groups in India and Myanmar have copied these changes." The biggest changes to extremist messaging have been "how they're communicating, where they're communicating, and who they're communicating to," according to Mathur. 

The biggest shift in "how" has been the advent of pop culture-inspired, entertainment-driven content designed to convey extremist messages. For example, a terrorist group created their own version of a Call of Duty poster to appeal to young people who like video games and action movies. 

Social media is where religious and political extremists use these images and messages to recruit people to their cause. "It's not just that they're on social media. They're using the different platforms really intelligently," Mathur explained. About a year ago, they were able to use an offensive meme posted to Facebook to spark a real-life conflict in a small, relatively peaceful town in India, thanks to misinformation spread on YouTube and Twitter. 

While the leaders of Al Qaeda employed a strict propaganda machine to control content production from the top down, ISIS opts for a guerilla marketing strategy. Case in point: Though the output of official ISIS propaganda has decreased since 2015, the amount of unofficial propaganda is increasing.

Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown
Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown

Regardless of its creator, the propaganda is often targeted at young men, in addition to low-income women in rural areas in Bangladesh, the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. "Groups like ISIS have been offering a really twisted version of empowerment that's aimed at women," Mathur said. "It's got a very strange sense of what it means to be a woman. You're supposed to give birth, but also know how to be a black belt in karate, and it's not even really clear who you're supposed to fight. It's almost like everybody, except for your husband." 

It seems unlikely that such confusing messaging would work, but it does. Many women targeted by ISIS messaging have unhappy home lives with abusive husbands. They see no way out, until someone offers them one. At a certain point, according to Mathur, it doesn't quite matter what that way out looks like or what sacrifices this new, alternative life may require. For women with "no agency" and no other options, the message resonates. 

Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown
Photo Credit: U.N. Women/Ryan Brown

So Mathur founded Mythos Labs to try something new. He and his colleagues teamed up with social influencers and comedians in South and Southeast Asia to create funny online videos that counter the gender stereotypes ISIS and other extremist groups use to recruit women. In a program sponsored by U.N. Women, Mythos Labs partnered with popular social media personalities on YouTube and Facebook to reach their target audience of young people. "If you're under 30, and you live in Asia — which is where these videos were made — you watch two and a half times more content on YouTube than you do on TV," he explained. "And I think that trend is probably just gonna increase over time." 

The company's goals align perfectly with the video platform's June 2017 institution of the "Redirect Method." For the past year, YouTube has responded to certain English-language keyword searches related to violent extremism by displaying playlists of pre-existing videos that debunk and discredit the recruiting narratives used by the Islamic State and other groups. YouTube, like Mythos Labs, aims to reach those who may feel isolated or powerless and are therefore at risk of radicalization through online extremist propaganda and messaging. 

YouTubers and other social media personalities have a unique knack for creating localized content that has a better chance of resonating with individuals and making them feel like part of a community. Mathur, a self-professed "comedy nerd," knew that every culture has its own unique sense of humor that doesn't always translate globally. 

That's why, when Mythos Labs made two videos — one in South Asia and one in Southeast Asia — the team took two totally different approaches. The first video, "Brainwash," was filmed in India as a satirical beauty product commercial that parodies the overall messaging of patriarchal society, not just violent extremism. Meanwhile, the second video "HI-SIS," filmed in Indonesia, takes the form of a slapstick, ensemble comedy that pokes fun at extremist recruiting practices.

The videos received millions of views on YouTube, but more importantly, 91 percent of viewers completed watching them — an impressively rare occurrence for any kind of online video. Not only that, but 88 percent of the comments were positive. Even with such results, it still begs the question: can something as simple as watching an online video really change someone's mind? 

To find out the real-life impact of its content, Mythos Labs also did a sentiment analysis. "We were asked to monitor sort of pro-ISIS and anti-[extremist], tolerant tweets emanating from the region," he explained. "We saw a reduction of 10 percent in the three weeks following that." Mathur was quick to acknowledge that there was no way they can prove the videos were responsible for the reduction, what they can prove is "a correlation, if not causality." Certainly, their videos didn't make anything worse. 

That is not to say the videos didn't elicit any negative "trolling" — they did. Many commenters were outraged by a reference to the gender pay gap in the "Brainwash" video, calling the creators "feminazis" and other disparaging terms. Having never received a negative comment on other videos he considered more controversial, Mathur was surprised not only by that initial reaction, but also by the replies from other viewers. "There was a 100 percent organic response rate to trolling. Every time somebody wrote a nasty comment... some other viewer — and it wasn't always just a woman, sometimes it was men, too — would respond to that in a really constructive way and say, 'Actually, please refer to this study' or 'Check this out.'" 

Beyond statistics, Mathur recounted the story of a viewer who shared a Mythos Labs' video with a family member who was "mixing with bad company" as an example of their ability to impact individuals After months of no communication from the family member, they finally responded to the video, saying, "That's funny." 

It may not sound like much, but it is. "Anybody who's worked in deradicalization or countering violent extremism knows that one of the hardest things to do with somebody going down that path is to just start a conversation," Mathur said. "And if you can do that that's kind of half — if not more — of the battle won." 

That's why the target audience for these videos are not the terrorists themselves. "If you're already in ISIS, you're probably not gonna quit because of this video," he added. "It's more [for] people who [might have] a family member, or a husband, or a wife they're concerned about or maybe they themselves are getting bullied at school for their religion, and they've been reached out to by some extremist organization… This could just maybe remind them of the absurdities of going down that path."

For extremist groups, these social media platforms have become virtual recruitment camps, but when YouTube is the frontlines, humor can pack an unexpectedly powerful punch. Because before someone reaches for a gun or a bomb, they reach for their phone.  What they see there can make all the difference in this increasingly connected world. 

Cover illustration via GaleanoStock / Shutterstock

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