A Brief Introduction to Online Extremism

In my previous blog, I introduced my plan to dig into the relationship between digital media and communities based on extreme ideas. Since then, I’ve reached out to various examples of those closed, sometimes extreme communities. They haven’t been very responsive so far. I’m however still positive that somewhere in the next couple of weeks I will produce an interview-based podcast. Make sure to check that out if you like listening to someone talking stone coal English!

In this blog, I like to discuss an article by Charlie Edwards and Luke Gribbon1, respectively Director of National Resilience Studies and Research Fellow at RUSI2. Edwards is the former Deputy Director of Strategy and Planning in the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Home Office (UK).

That’s quite the title: these men know what they’re talking about. The article I want to discuss is called ‘Pathways to Violent Extremism in the Digital Era’. In this article, Edwards and Gribbon argue research regarding extremism and digital media has been focusing on the wrong aspects of the relationship. The mechanisms in its core have not been adequately unearthed, they state. By talking to 15 different convicted terrorists, the writers aim to explore this.

The first the convicts stresses the bilateral personality he developed in the first phases of his ‘radicalization’: an online and an offline one. “Offline he ‘behaved normally’, with his friends and family. Online, however, his views grew increasingly extreme as he became more involved in right-wing chat forums and helped others out with creating and distributing right-wing extremist material.”

And that’s understandable. For anonymity, safety and accessibility issues, extremists use the WWW for spreading propaganda and information, fundraising, operational planning, and whatnot. The Internet is nowadays part of almost every priority national-security investigation, but its precise role in the process of radicalization remains difficult to define.

The article continues by shortly introducing the participating convicts. This includes a woman who was in a relationship with one of the other victims. She had married him after a short, online relationship and directly after doing that, started behaving in a more traditional way. She became more insular and reduced her work with clients of other ethnicities. It also includes a Saudi Arabian man, who was active for twelve years, mainly spending his time translating extremist books and recruiting/fundraising.

Research regarding their online behavior introduces the term home-grown terrorist. In fear of being ‘caught online’, these extremists entered the extreme side of the world wide web over 50% of the time at home. As to what they were looking at online: using social media such as Facebook to get in touch with like-minded people and Google for researching more practical stuff, such as reading about explosives, religious content, suicide bombing, etc. One of the convicts stressed the benefits of the Internet: ‘The Internet provided him with a ready-made audience. He had gone, in his words, from retail to wholesale.’

‘A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is worth a thousand pictures.’ This quote, a little further in the article, shows the impact of video and image in radicalization. One of the convicts states platforms like YouTube or Internet radio replace the interaction, usually required for joining a group. ‘A person who is being radicalized will believe […], that he is talking directly to them.’

The argument that the Internet functions as an ‘echo chamber’ is backed by some of the convicts. It accelerates radicalization. However, these participants were not found by the radicalization, but much rather found it themselves. The Internet was just another platform to them, or did help them navigate through extremist content, but only because they were looking for it in the first place.

The conclusion of the article contains a sentence that seems to summarize the problem of the intelligence agencies pretty well: ‘the Internet offers terrorists and extremists the capability to communicate, connect and collaborate in ways that are increasingly difficult to monitor.’ In addition to that, it is extremely difficult to get in touch with convicted terrorists and extremists, obstructing further research regarding the influence of the Internet on their behaviour. 

It may be clear that the Internet plays a large role in radicalization. The article shows this role is multifaceted. The interviews with the convicts showed, in opposition to my initial beliefs, that its role is mainly of the facilitating kind rather than of prompting kind.

This blog was a short introduction to my previously mentioned blog-portmanteau. Next week, I’ll dive into a specific community and its relationship with digital media.

1: Edwards, C. & L. Gribbon 2013.  Pathways to Violent Extremism in the Digital Era. The Russi Journal, Issue 5.
2: https://rusi.org/expertise