With the recent United States presidential election, I have chosen to focus the theme of this Three Paper Thursday on extremism and radicalisation. This topic has got increasing media attention during the past six years in the United States, through both a general rise in the public prominence of far-right, racist rhetoric in political culture (often attributed to the Trump presidency), and a series of high-profile violent events associated with far-right extremism. These events range from the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia (which turned violent when rally attendees clashed with counter-protesters and a vehicle drove into a crowd marching through downtown, killing one protester (Heim, Silverman, Shapiro, & Brown, 2017), to the recent arrest of individuals plotting a kidnap of the Governor of Michigan. This far-right violence brought to light the continued existence of right-wing extremism in the United States. This has historical roots in well-known organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secretive, racist, terrorist organisation founded in 1865 during Reconstruction as part of a backlash against the acquisition of civil rights by African-American people in the South (Bowman-Grieve, 2009; Martin, 2006).
In contemporary online societies, the landscape and dynamics of right-wing extremist communities have changed. These communities have learned how to exploit the capacities of online social networks for recruitment, information sharing, and community building. The sophistication and reach of online platforms has evolved rapidly from the bulletin board system (BBS) to online forums and now social media platforms, which incorporate powerful technologies for marketing, targeting, and disseminating information. However, the use of these platforms for right-wing radicalisation (the process through which an individual develops and/or accepts extreme ideologies and beliefs) remains under-examined in academic scholarship. This Three Paper Thursday pulls together some key current literature on radicalisation in online contexts.
Maura Conway, Determining the role of the internet in violent extremism and terrorism: Six suggestions for progressing research. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 40(1), 77-98. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1057610X.2016.1157408.
The first paper comments on future directions for research in understanding and determining the role of the Internet in violent extremism and terrorism. After guiding readers through an overview of current research, the author argues that there is a lack of both descriptive and explanatory work on the topic, as the field remains divided. Some view Internet as mere speech platforms and argue that participation in online radicalised communities is often the most extreme behaviour in which most individuals engage. Others acknowledge the affordances of the Internet but are uncertain in its role in replacing or strengthening other radicalisation processes. The author concludes that two major research questions remain to be answered: whether radicalisation can occur in a purely online context, and if so, does it contribute to violence? In that case, the mechanisms merit further exploration. The author makes six suggestions for future researchers: a) widening current research to include movements beyond jihadism, b) conducting comparison research (e.g., between platforms and/or organisations), c) studying individual users in extremist communities and groups, d) using large-scale datasets, e) adopting an interdisciplinary approach, and f) examining the role of gender.
Yi Ting Chua, Understanding radicalization process in online far-right extremist forums using social influence model. PhD thesis, Michigan State University, 2019. Available from https://d.lib.msu.edu/etd/48077.
My doctoral dissertation examines the impact of participation in online far-right extremist groups on radicalisation. In this research, I applied social network analysis and integrated theories from criminology (social learning theory) and political science (the idea of the echo chamber) to understand the process of attitudinal changes within social networks. It draws on a longitudinal database of threads saved from eight online far-right extremist forums. With the social influence model, which is a regression model with a network factor, I was able to include the number of interactions and attitudinal beliefs of user pairs when examining attitudinal changes across time. This model allows us to determine if, and how, active interactions result in expression of more radical ideological beliefs. Findings suggested that online radicalisation occurred at varying degrees in six of seven forums, with a general lowered level of expressed extremism towards the end of observed time period. The study found strong support the proposition that active interactions with forum members and connectedness are predictors of radicalisation, while suggesting that other mechanisms, such as self-radicalisation and users’ prior beliefs, were also important. This research highlighted the need for theory integration, detailed measures of online peer association, and cross-platform comparisons (i.e. Telegram and Gab) to address the complex phenomena of online radicalisation.
Magdalena Wojcieszak, ‘Don’t talk to me’: effects of ideologically homogeneous online groups and politically dissimilar offline ties on extremism. New Media & Society, 12(4) (2010) pp 637-655. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1461444809342775.
In this article, the author is interested in answering two questions: 1) does participation in ideologically homogeneous online groups increase extreme beliefs, and 2) how do offline strong and weak ties with dissimilar beliefs affect extreme beliefs? The author uses online survey data and posts from neo-Nazi online forums. The outcome is measured by respondents’ responses to 10 ideology-specific statements. Other variables in the analysis included the level of participation in online groups, perceived dissimilarity of offline ties, news media exposure and demographics. Findings from a multivariate regression model indicate that participation in online groups was a strong predictor of support for racial violence after controlling for demographic factors and news media exposure. Forum members’ attitudes are subjected to normative influences via punitive or rewarding replies. For individuals with politically dissimilar offline ties, the author finds a weakened participation effect.
Together, these papers highlight the complexity of assessing the role played by the Internet in the radicalisation process. The first paper encourages researchers to tackle whether online violent radicalisation occurs via six different approaches. The other two papers show support for online radicalisation while simultaneously calling attention to the effect of other variables, such as the influence of offline relationships and users’ baseline beliefs prior to online participation. All of these papers cross academic disciplines, highlighting the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective.
Bowman-Grieve, L. (2009). Exploring “Stormfront”: A virtual community of the radical right. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 32(11), 989-1007.
Heim, J., Silverman, E., Shapiro, T. R., Brown, E. (2017, August 13). One dead as car strikes crowds amid protests of white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville; two police die in helicopter crash. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/fights-in-advance-of-saturday-protest-in-charlottesville/2017/08/12/155fb636-7f13-11e7-83c7-5bd5460f0d7e_story.html?utm_term=.33b6686c7838.
Martin, G. (2006). Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.