The role of social media in violent radicalisation

Does the Internet (and social media) really causes radicalisation or is it just another misconception? A text by Phil Gurski.

I read the other day that the widely-held belief that we lose 70% of our body’s heat through our head on a cold day is a myth. I am probably not the only one who was long assured that this maxim was true and hence wore a toque (that is Canadian for a knitted hat by the way) outside in winter to prevent my brain from freezing.

To this erroneous bit of conviction we must add the notion that vaccines cause autism, UFOs are proof that aliens visit Earth and that dropping a coin from the Empire State Building in Manhattan will kill anyone unfortunate enough to be standing under it.  The UK magazine New Scientist even had a whole article on this kind of thinking recently which the reader should check out.

To this analytic error I have to talk about another misconception: the Internet (and social media) causes radicalisation.

I have read far too often that someone was radicalised by or on the Internet. The first phrase makes no sense as the Internet cannot do anything to anyone: it is a vehicle, not an actor. The second one is possible but only if you qualify it to a large extent.  The rest of this blog will attempt to do just that.

Jihadis and those interested in jihadi ideas are just like us, although this may surprise (and insult) some readers. The fact remains that there is no profile or ‘weakness’ to those who radicalise to violence and join terrorist groups and as such they are ‘from’ us. And, just like us, they are addicted to social media and the Internet. 

They visit Web sites and use chatrooms and post photos and follow links just as we do. Terrorist groups realise this as well so they too have made great use of these tools to spread their propaganda and hatred with a view to scaring average citizens and recruiting others to their pathetic causes.

This last point has to be expanded upon. While wannabe jihadis are often lured by the appeal of the messages sent out by groups like Islamic State they are not impassive sponges that absorb content and somehow miraculously come out as fully fledged terrorists that can just show up and present themselves as ‘soldiers of Allah’. It is much more complicated than that. Even with the ‘sexiness’ of the content, people have questions and uncertainties and these have to be resolved before a move as serious as hooking up with IS is made. 

Other people in that online environment, as well as those in a person’s offline world (i.e. family and friends) play a huge role in answering those questions and doubts and helping interested parties identify those who can facilitate their journey. None of this happens in a vacuum and we really need to stop saying that it does.

A recent UNESCO report entitled Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media backs me up on this. It states quite clearly that no one knows precisely what is the role of social media in the radicalisation process and that more study and evidence are needed. One paragraph in the report struck me as very important:

The phenomenon often referred to as “incitement to radicalization towards violent extremism” (or “violent radicalization”) has grown in recent years. This is mainly in relation to the Internet in general and social media in particular. This is despite it being immediately evident that other offline factors, including face-to-face communications, peer pressure and false information constitute more powerful forces, and are ignored at the peril of limiting our rights to freedom of expression if we focus only on the Internet.

Terrorism studies are not the only ones bereft in many cases of actual scholarship and the gathering of real data but a lot of the material I see is not very good and often makes bald claims with little to back those up. In this regard we reduce ourselves to stock phrases and throwaway lines at our peril. If we are serious on doing something about radicalisation let’s first understand what we are dealing with, no?

Violent extremists are no more likely to have mental illness than the average population.

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. borealisrisk@gmail.com

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