Center for Strategic Communication

By Pauline Hope Cheong

Two related white papers have generated fresh buzz about Internet radicalization in recent weeks.  These papers are in substantial disagreement about the basic issue of how much of a force the Internet is in causing radicalization.  This is a sign that the process is not yet well-enough understood, and that we need a broader view of the effects of new media on radicalization.

One report, Countering Internet Radicalization in Southeast Asia, is a joint effort of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Australian Strategic Policy Institute (RSIS-ASPI).  The other, Countering Online Radicalization, is published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR).

Both articles acknowledge the role of the Internet in ideological warfare resulting in violence. Here are excerpts from both reports that illustrate what they have in common  (italics, mine):

Recent examples from Europe, including the cases of Younis Tsouli (a.k.a. ‘irhabi007’) and Ifran Rafa, show that the internet can be the main way some individuals become radicalised without external contact. Both men spent hundreds of hours downloading videos, posting email messages and chatting on web forums. As a result of those activities, and without any prior involvement with extremist groups, both Tsouli and Rafa concluded that they wanted to participate in a terrorist attack. They were joined by others online to create a ‘virtual’ terrorist cell… (RSIS-ASPI)

Labelled ‘Britain’s youngest terrorist’ by the press, Munshi collected instructions for making napalm, high explosives and suicide vests, and was a member of a British group of ‘online jihadists’ who regularly shared extremist videos and spent hours discussing their plans to travel to Pakistan and die as ‘martyrs’. Much of Munshi’s extremist activism took place online, but his radicalisation had been initiated in the ‘real world’. Through a common friend, Munshi had met Aabid Khan at Dewsbury central mosque. Khan had attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and served as a recruiter for the Islamist militant movement ….As with Khan, whose real world contacts informed his online activities, Munshi’s radicalisation too was a combination of face-to-face interaction and virtual consolidation. (ICSR)

So both papers highlight the personal actions of young European Muslims in radicalization.

On the other hand they disagree about how much of a role the Net plays in this process. In the RSIS-ASPI report, the Internet is conceived to be a culpable force and cyberspace is the central context of radicalization.  For them, “auto-radicalization” poses a significant threat:

The internet has contributed to radicalization, will probably grow in regional significance, and might become the dominant factor in radicalization in the region.

But the ICSR report sees online activities as a less malignant complement to face-to-face encounters in extremist activism.  It concludes that the Internet is not and will not be the principal driver of hate crimes and terrorist attacks:

[S]elf radicalization and self-recruitment via the Internet with little or no relation to the outside world rarely happens, and there is no reason to suppose that this situation will change in the future.

Disagreement in the two reports reflects uncertainty about the role of the Internet.  It is envisaged as the main culprit in one approach, and as an accomplice in another.  The difference is important, because which view we accept has real implications for policy.

Clearly it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly when radicalization occurs and  what sources contribute the most to the conversion process.   The link between  personal uptake of online propaganda and violent action is tough to establish because we still have too narrow a view of how any why technology supports radicalization.

Broadening our view of technology and its effects could improve our ability to draw the link.   For example, here are three aspects of techno-radicalization not addressed in the current reports that seem crucial to understanding the process:

  • Speed and intensity of radical messages and messaging.  Both papers mention the capabilities of the internet for anonymity and asynchronous communication, but they downplay the diffusion of online messages over time and and the importance of “viral” messaging systems.  Both reports cite political communication research on the “echo chamber” effect of the internet, which speeds amplification of messages.  But other concepts exist that deal with other aspects of message intensification.  For example, research on hyperpersonal communication online that stresses that computer-mediated communication speeds up development of social intimacy between users.  Any evaluation of the Internet’s impact as a radicalization tool needs to consider the various ways mediated communication intensifies communication relationships.  We must also keep in mind that online radicalization is usually backed up by face-to-face encounters.
  • The evolving communication ecology.  Both reports focus on the Internet and offer policy recommendations involving the government, Internet service providers, and Internet users to varying degrees.  But they are silent on recommendations regarding the related aspects of the mediated and interpersonal communication landscape.   This is important because our conception of what constitutes “the Internet” is continuously evolving as various smaller media applications like Twitter are connected to the web via multiple mobile devices. Radicalization can also be catalyzed via the creative appropriation of online materials from older media, and vice versa. For example, the conversion of religious podcasts to cassettes or compact discs by Internet users for dissemination to their social networks adds new scope to religious webs of faith and the appraisal of online radicalization.
  • Incidental communication, virtual worlds, and identity.  Both reports focus primarily on the recent proliferation of extremist websites and their migration to popular social networking media like YouTube and Facebook. Yet the attention placed on internet users’ direct consumption of messages–downloads, page views and messaging, etc.–overlooks extremists’ growing use of virtual worlds like Second Life, where communication can be more incidental.  Though some dismiss this threat, recent research on online religion shows how virtual worlds can support religious collaboration and the growth of religious identity and community.  This flags another potentially important aspect of online radicalization.

In short, disagreement about the role of the Internet in radicalization is a sign that we don’t yet have a complete understanding of everything that it entails.  A good response is to broaden our view of how technology affects communication, what counts as “the Internet,” and how it can grow identities that sympathize with extremist ideologies.