What role does technology, particularly computer‑mediated communications, play in violent extremism? This is such a broad question that it practically begs for follow‑ups, such as what role does the Internet, including social media, play in the radicalisation process? Has the use of social media increased the production and exposure to violent extremist content and narratives, and does this exposure radicalise individuals to violence? Does the use of computer‑mediated communications and social media platforms make it easier to recruit or mobilise individuals to join violent extremist causes? Is there something about the technologies and platforms themselves – their design, logic, affordances and limitations – that contributes to and facilitates extremism? Does the precise role of technology depend on the type of extremist ideology or organisational structure of a particular movement, or indeed the gender or background of an individual? How does Internet technology and computer‑mediated communications facilitate relationships or develop online social ecologies that contribute to extremism? Even if an individual comes to espouse extremist beliefs via online exposure to extremist narratives and content or participation in online subcultures, does that then necessarily lead to violence, militancy or other offline harms?
These questions are by no means exhaustive or new. Since extremist actors have been some of the earliest adopters of the Internet and recognised its potential as a communications and mobilisation tool, researchers have been grappling with these and similar questions around the role of technology and extremism for decades, but particularly since the advent of Islamic State, as its rapid rise, global reach and adept use of social media challenged terrorism researchers and counter‑terrorism officials alike.
We are now in a similar moment with the growth in violent extremism motivated by right‑wing ideologies and conspiracies. There has been a 205% increase in far right terrorism in the past five years, as well as the rapid emergence of violent conspiratorial extremist movements, namely QAnon, facilitated by the Internet. While some claim that the fear of QAnon may be overblown, the conspiracy movement has been labelled as a domestic extremist threat by the FBI and has been the motivation for a number of recent violent attacks. During the coronavirus pandemic, many people have lived under a cloud of anxiety and insecurity, while also spending copious amounts of time online. The rise in Internet usage has prompted concerns, as yet unsubstantiated, that this has increased the risk of radicalisation online, or at least of the exposure to extremist content online.
Dr Maura Conway facilitated this conversation around the role of technology in violent extremism in 2017 with her article, “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research”. In it she describes how the terrorism research community grapples with the role of the Internet. But as Dr Conway noted at the time, there is “insufficient substantive empirically grounded social science research [that] has been undertaken to date in order to allow us to convincingly answer these questions”.
There are still few definitive answers, but since the article’s publication, the extremism and terrorism research community has made progress in answering questions around the role of the Internet, causality and the affordances that particular technologies or platforms provide to violent extremist actors. There has been a great deal of new research into the role of the Internet and other technologies in extremism and terrorism in the past five years. There has been greater collaboration among data scientists and terrorism researchers from the social sciences. There is now more attention paid in the field of Internet studies to extremism and terrorism – in a similar fashion to when media and communications studies and social psychology also interacted with terrorism studies.
The very establishment of the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, and the greater willingness of the tech industry to acknowledge, however haltingly, that their platforms and technologies are not only exploited by extremist actors but that their affordances have contributed to the rapid spread of extremist ideologies, has progressed our understanding. Mainstream platforms are now grappling with their role in the creation of extremist online milieus and their contribution to the changing nature of extremism and its organisational structure. Industry is also more engaged with work coming from the violent extremism research community.
The growing body of evidence does indeed demonstrate Internet technology can be an important factor in facilitating extremism. At the same time, there is an acknowledgement that we need to dig more deeply into what that exactly means for such a broad conclusion to make any kind of useful sense. There has emerged a more nuanced understanding that Internet technology, while not necessarily causing violent extremism, can have multiple and various roles in facilitating radicalisation and mobilisation to violent extremism.
Additionally, we now understand that there is “no easy online and offline dichotomy” when it comes to actual violent behaviours motivated by extremist beliefs. Furthermore, instead of conceptualising ‘online radicalisation’ writ large, there is a greater awareness that Internet technologies have different roles in the extremism process and that these technologies afford various uses and allow for various actions.
There is also an awareness that the role of technology in radicalisation and mobilisation to violence has shifted over the decades alongside advances in technology itself. The shift from static websites and closed forums to public social networking sites back to alt‑tech platforms and skulking in the ‘dark web’ or ‘deep web’ by extremist actors has significantly changed the role of the Internet and other technologies related to extremism, depending on the affordances of each platform or technology. Current technology that did not exist in previous years, such as end‑to‑end encryption messaging services and drone technology, has impacted the tactics, communications and operations of extremist actors. Further advances in technology will prompt similar shifts. As David Benson notes in his article examining whether the Internet has led to an increase in transnational terrorism, “Since the Internet is ubiquitous, it would be strange if today’s terrorists did not use the Internet, just as it would be strange if past terrorists did not use the postal service or telephones.” Just as advances in technology shift every aspect of our lives, so too will they impact extremism and terrorism.
Until recently, there was an understanding that Internet technology is a “facilitative tool”: radicalisation to violence, recruitment, mobilisation and attack planning could be aided but were not necessarily dependent on the Internet; nor did the Internet cause radicalisation. That may still be the case. However, during the pandemic, and particularly after the Capitol Siege in the United States, concerns about the causality of Internet technology gained new urgency. The Capitol Siege brought together a wide array of networks, groups and individuals, from organised militant groups to individual QAnon believers and pro‑Trump activists, who all believed in the ‘Big Lie’, perpetuated and spread largely as online disinformation, that the US presidential election was fraudulent. The ground for the Capitol Siege was laid for months on online forums by a variety of established extremist groups and the disinformation around the election process and election results was awash in the open Internet and mainstream social media platforms. Social media also featured prominently as the Siege was conducted: a preliminary report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that 68% of participants who have been charged by law enforcement “documented their alleged crimes in real‑time at the Capitol.”
The report also found that social media also “played a central role in the organization of the siege and the dissemination of material which helped to inspire involvement in it.” Social media also played a role in allowing the disparate groups and individuals that participated in the Capitol Siege to interact and eventually coalesce in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021. Cases profiled in the report detail how social media facilitated the formation of spontaneous ‘clusters’ of previously unknown individuals finding each other and travelling together to participate in the siege with little planning – in many ways echoing the process of ISIS‑inspired foreign travellers but with less lead time, distance or barriers to travel.
As social media and algorithmic technologies become more and more embedded in our daily lives, could the Internet not only facilitate but actively enable violent extremism? In their 2015 study of the online behaviours of convicted UK terrorists, Paul Gill, Emily Corner, Amy Thornton and Maura Conway found that “The Internet has not led to a rise in terrorism. It is largely a facilitative tool; radicalisation is enabled by the Internet rather than being dependent upon it.
But are we witnessing an emergence of “a new of terrorism that can’t exist without the internet”? Was the Capitol Siege an example of the Internet enabling and leading to mass digital radicalisation and mass mobilisation? Did the Internet usage of some of individuals involved in the siege and their steady exposure to extremist narratives and disinformation online – particularly those not affiliated with already established organisations – accelerate their process of radicalisation to violence? In fact, was their radicalisation to violence in this instance actually determined by or dependent on the Internet? Has the ‘logic’ of various platforms contributed to the growth of extremism and does it now play a more significant part in an individual’s trajectory to radicalisation to violence?
In attempting to outline the new social media logic and understand the ways in which social media platforms have “penetrated deeply into the mechanics of everyday life” and affected institutional structures and people’s interactions, José van Dijck and Thomas Poell have compared social media logic to the mass media logic that emerged before it and theorised that social media has created a new ecosystem that “reshapes social orders or chains of events.” Because social media has the ability to transport its logic outside its platforms via the “strategies, mechanisms and economies underpinning social media platforms’ dynamics,” broader society becomes subject to its logic and principles.
While van Dijck and Poell do not focus on extremism specifically, extremism researcher J. M. Berger has outlined a similar argument around how the logic and nature of computer‑enabled communications, and social media in particular, have fundamentally changed the conditions around social interaction and reorganised our public sphere in such a way that has led to extremism. This rise of the Internet, especially social media, according to Berger, has contributed to greater uncertainty and frayed “consensus reality” by creating “a volatile and unwelcoming environment for the idea of objective truth.” Social media platforms have increased uncertainty because they have allowed all manner of contradictory information, opinions and analysis to populate their platforms. Berger posits that “Social media creates an environment in which multiple alternative views of reality can win support by attracting measurable levels of engagement sufficient to be understood by audience members as consensus. To reconcile the uncertainty created by these conflicting viewpoints, audience members are likely to rely on in‑group validation of perceived reality, which is often accompanied by hostility toward out‑group views”. It is human nature to meet this fracturing of consensus reality with a corresponding effort to seek out certainty via “exclusive, all‑encompassing identities – many of which are toxic and fragile – and hold the seed of violent extremism”. Extremism also emerges because an out‑group’s consensus is experienced as an existential threat that must be countered. Berger also contends that there are critical differences between old and new media, particularly regarding the lack of gate keepers or content regulation, the low cost of production and “engagement metrics bundled inextricably with distribution.”
Lydia Khalil is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute‘s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology.