When I began filing daily posts on radicalization leading up to violent extremism, back in 2017, consensus was that processes in the physical world were paramount. “Do not blame the internet”, a few advanced. Some researchers assigned no role to online factors, others saw a minor role. Why was I of a different opinion? I argued that were it not for take-down and, bluntly, censorship efforts of online platforms and services, even more damage would have been done. As seen from today, I was right.
But to what extent exactly do online activities or documents contribute to violent extremism today? There appear to be no research studies regarding the role of generic online texts and in what extent they trigger extremism. And yet, there should be, based on files of the security institutions, interviews, court documents, and the like. One ought to still differentiate between lone actors and those who are also, but not exclusively, radicalized by peers in the so-called ‘real world.’ Either way, the online sphere always plays some role.
A pertinent question would be in how far the physical world can really be chiefly conducive to violent extremism, if one simplifies, and whether it, more often than not, does not amplify or trigger hate seeded by generic web content such as books and audiovisual content, on the one hand, or by opinions and chats, on the other. This would, then, be the contrary of what some outspoken academics used to say.
There are catches, for instance the issue of perception. If one were to ask perpetrators how much they were influenced by online text, there is what I call ‘analog bias.’ I.e., physical meetings, although circumstantial, will be remembered more vividly than the online, part-subliminal, experience. If one knows that potential violent extremists frequently read on online material as such, although it is true that they are often groomed by extremist facilitators, one is tempted to forget that this is part of the online experience, too. I have coined the term of ‘abstract radicalization’ to denote the phenomenon of non-groomer-led processes.
In any case, key analog experiences figure more prominently in the recollection of perpetrators than does online content and what is conveyed about the physical world indirectly – also online. Although in fact, the latter two may have shaped beliefs and actions of those radicalized quite strongly or predominantly.
It is unhelpful, as seen from an academic standpoint, for security officials to insist on meetings of perpetrators with groomers and radical groups, thereby neglecting online factors. This makes it virtually impossible for academics to harvest information on the ratio between the significance of the digital as compared with the analog.
There should certainly be more awareness about the significance of the online world when it comes to radicalization, including in academic circles. The lack thereof, as well as the ‘analog bias’ in perception and recollection of the observed, make it impossible to delineate developments in the significance of the internet in the transformation from radical to violent.
Fortunately, much dangerous or highly questionable content conducive to extremism is being moderated or deleted. As pointed out, if it were not so, the internet would play an even more dangerous role than it does nowadays, whether via grooming, generic texts instigating violence, and otherwise.
Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
25 October 2023