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Project Orpheus: Building resilience to online extremism in Portsmouth

With external funding to support counter-extremism delivery decreasing, Portsmouth worked with international partners to devise and deliver work with young people to protect them from online harms and improve critical thinking skills in partnership with local and national third sector providers.

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The challenge

Portsmouth has, at various stages, been identified as a priority area for both Prevent and counter-extremism. Whilst the counter-terrorism risk has dropped in Portsmouth, the concerns around mixed, unstable and unclear ideologies persist, and the far-right continue to have a small presence in the city, with hate crime remaining a challenge.

Work with communities across Portsmouth over the past decade has shown that the increasing concern has been in the online space, which as a largely unpoliced area leads to extremist content and ideologies going unaddressed. Combined with isolation, mental health issues and a fascination with violence, this has led to a cohort of largely young people accessing extremist ideologies with no counter-narrative in place.

The solution

With UK Government funding to Portsmouth reducing following the reduction of terrorism risk, the local authority sought innovative approaches to continue funding their strong work in this area. An opportunity presented itself to be the UK partner of the EU-funded ‘Project Orpheus’, part of the Interreg Two Seas programme, which brought together municipalities from countries bordering the English Channel/North Sea to pilot approaches. This programme included an emphasis on partnering local authorities with local universities and civil society organisations to provide a strong evidence base for success.

The aims of Orpheus were to:

  • build resilience to extremism amongst young people
  • strengthen online safety measures
  • build an EU prevention model for violent extremism.

In Portsmouth the agreed focus was on the online space with a priority to develop a prevention framework by enabling participants to improve their critical thinking and internal resilience skills.

The local authority worked with the University of Portsmouth to develop an online literacy project. Together they trained youth workers, community development workers and a number of external agencies to better understand a range of online harms including radicalisation, conspiracy theories, emerging threats such as incel, and as a result improve online literacy.

This fed into a programme of workshops and training to enable young people in Portsmouth to build their own resilience and be better equipped to interpret the information which they might come across online. Linking in with Portsmouth University’s Cybercrime unit enabled young people to receive training in skills such as fact checking, reverse image searches and understanding the roots of memes in an extremist context whilst debunking false information and misinformation.

Training sessions for young people were delivered by third sector organisations. Delivery was through Jon Nicholas, a conflict resolution expert and senior associate with the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation, a UK-wide specialist organisation which provides a dedicated training package for discussing controversial issues through interactive discussions and exploring scenarios.

As well as national organisations, Portsmouth have identified and partnered with local groups, Motiv8 and Unloc, and schools and colleges in the city to deliver training. This has the advantage of building on existing reach into local communities. Through the COVID period – when delivery switched online – this was a distinct advantage as many of the relationships with service users were already in place. Delivering online can be particularly beneficial when delivering sessions on online literacy.

The impact

Locally, over 240 young people have received online awareness and resilience training; over 110 have participated in safe space activities; and 35 frontline workers have received relevant training on managing difficult discussions and online safety. Each of these cohorts have delivered their targets in increasing awareness and confidence.

With the involvement of academics there is a significant emphasis on evaluation; developing a robust measure of attitudinal change is a key aim of the programme. As Orpheus has not yet concluded, this has not yet been finalised, but the work in Portsmouth will contribute to this.

How is the new approach being sustained?

With the Orpheus project reaching the end of its funded period, Portsmouth is looking towards achieving sustainable outcomes through building skills and capacity in schools and other community groups, and building networks in community and voluntary sector organisations. Practitioners are working with local policymakers to influence future decision making to support the continuation of this work.

Lessons learned

Portsmouth have come to recognise that local partners are best placed to deliver programmes of this nature as they understand the context within which local young people operate. Local NGOs already have the links into groups of potentially vulnerable young people and as a result bring with them access to a ready-made audience alongside the necessary local credibility.

The council reports that the partnership with the University of Portsmouth has been hugely beneficial as a learning process, enabling the local authority to understand academic methodologies and habits and bringing this rigour into their own work.

Portsmouth’s project leads report that the most important lesson learned over the project was that views, knowledge and experiences of young people differ to those of ‘professionals’. Although the views of professionals are valuable to the development of the project, utilising the experiences and views of young people to shape the approach has provided extremely useful insights, and only through direct engagement with them can the project be delivered effectively.

Portsmouth’s experiences through Orpheus have been hugely beneficial to the design of their ongoing work in this space. Despite the emphasis on academic evaluation leading to the delivery of behaviour change, the project leads note that in many cases “the conversation is enough – local government doesn’t have to have the answers to everything, we just need to let people have space to talk things over”.


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Portsmouth City Council: hate crime

Interreg 2 seas: Project Orpheus