Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

I ran across an interesting research article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Communication entitled “‘Carrying online participation offline’–Mobilization by radical online groups and politically dissimilar offline ties.”*

The study looks at neo-Nazis and radical environmentalists (NN/RE) in the West, but because it potentially sheds some light on similar practices by online Muslim extremists, some of the findings deserve comment here.

One notable thing about the study is that it is based on a survey of actual participants in NN/RE Internet forums. The author sampled 517 e-mail and PM addresses form participants in 19 forums, and got usable responses from about 62% of them. That’s a surprising response rate. I don’t know about you, but if I were a neo-Nazi or radical environmentalist I wouldn’t be too keen to answer surveys about my participation in activities supporting my movement.

One question the study addresses is whether participation in the online groups has any effect on support and promotion of the movement in question. Results suggest that the answer is yes because the participation factor was “significant” (science-speak for “greater than expected by chance”). However the effects were very small, with level of participation in the group accounting for 4% of the variation in support for the movement, and 3.4% of the variation in promotion of the movement.

A flaw of the study, in my view, is that all the respondents were participants in a online group. Without a non-participant group for comparison the study can’t conclusively answer the question of how much participation increases mobilization.

More interesting are the study’s findings about the influence of offline relationships on the participants’ engagement. Specifically it asks whether family and friends influence political engagement and/or moderate the mobilizing influence of the online groups. The study classified a participant’s “core ties” (people they are very close to, such as family member) into three categories, those having high, moderate, and low similarity to their own political views. For participants with either the high- and low-similarity core ties, movement support, movement participation and online participation were attenuated.

The author repeated this analysis for “significant ties” (people, such as friends, to whom participants are close but not as close as with core ties). Here there were similar but smaller effects for movement support and online participation, but not movement promotion.  So what we might call “lesser” ties do not have as much of an effect as core ties.

These findings suggest that lots of interpersonal communication with close others reduces the tendency to put radical ideas into practice, if the close others are either radical or anti-radical. If they are more of a mixed bag then they tend not to have this effect. This is interesting because we would normally assume that a radical whose network of close relationships is also radical would perhaps be the most dangerous.  But this seems not to be the case, at least in this samlple.

If the study’s findings generalize, then radicals are perhaps most likely to mobilize as a result of online participation when they are in a social milieu that contains a lot of political diversity.  This would seem more likely if a radical is located in an urban environment. Could this help explain the tendency for radical Islamists to operate in large urban areas of Europe and the U.S.?

* by Magdalena Wojcieszak.  Journal of Communication, Vol. 59 (2009), pages 564-586.