Does the Internet radicalize extremists and what can we do about it ?

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Assessment of the state of knowledge: Connections between research on the social psychology of the Internet and violent extremism

The Internet is increasingly implicated in the radicalization of extremists to the point of violent action. Radicalization might be understood as the mental component of the process whereby radical ideas develop to the extreme of a willingness to directly support or engage in violent acts. Despite the implication, there appears to be a gap in our understanding of how this happens and how to resolve this as a problem. Ducol et al. assessed the current understanding of the role of the Internet in violent extremism. They analysed existing research and used their findings to inform a study of fifteen cases of radicalization where the Internet is assumed to have played a role. They then discuss possible options for dealing with radicalization.

The Internet should not be perceived as a singular pathway or driver to radicalization. It is only one part of a complex multidimensional process any part of which alone may not lead directly to the adoption of violent extremist beliefs. It could play a role in the initial exposure to radical ideas, beliefs and universes of socialization that legitimize the moral conviction to carry out violent actions. The Internet could reinforce offline radicalization processes by providing additional resources. It could also play a role in re-structuring personal networks, with individuals spending more time online filtering moderate influences from their social circle. More important elements in radicalization are social bonds and personal networks, the development of which can be facilitated by the Internet.

There are two major incentives that may explain why some choose to intensify their exposure to online radicalizing environments. First, they are able to find appealing answers to existential questions online from an increasing number of more credible sources. Second, they are able to find like-minded individuals who support their views. In this circumstance, the Internet becomes an echo chamber for intellectual and cognitive fantasies, reinforcing polarized worldviews. This allows individuals to cognitively self-intoxicate on perceived threats to their group and the urgent need to take violent action. Finally, the Internet may provide inspirational and operational knowledge to actualise violent action.

Countering violent extremism (CVE) in the Canadian context includes the recently proposed 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act which includes provisions intended to “remove terrorist propaganda from the Internet.” However, the potential effectiveness of such measures is questionable. There is simply too much content on the Internet to feasibly analyse and censor. Even if it were possible, there are issues surrounding what properly constitutes “extremist content” as only a tiny fraction of what is considered extremist content is actually illegal.Attention has increasingly turned to counter-messaging as a central response to violent extremism. Counter-messaging is a proactive approach that focuses on reducing the demand for extremist content by offering credible alternatives to undermine its appeal. Counter-messaging may be realized through counter-narratives. Counter-narratives represent attempts to directly or indirectly challenge violent extremist messages challenging assumptions, exposing fallacies, and dismantling conspiracy theories. The idea behind counter-narratives is relatively straightforward, but their practice is much more complicated.

The CVE programs reviewed generally lacked the means by which to distinguish the role of the Internet in the radicalization process for the violent extremists they targeted. Understanding the radicalization process is greatly complicated by a lack of consensus on the causes of radicalization. In the absence of solid evidence, we are left with only pet theories and speculation to develop strategies. There appears to be a substantial gap between what is known about the factors that are may animate the radicalization process and the factors that CVE interventions attempt to address. Much more research is needed on CVE programs to understand their impact. CVE programs should be firmly grounded in the “causes” of radicalization to violent extremism.

An overemphasis on Muslim radicalization has also been noted by CVE critics. Singling out Muslims in an effort to make them feel less alienated is counterproductive. Further, if individuals are not motivated by ideology but by needs rooted in identity, belonging, recognition and respect, then challenging their beliefs would be ineffective in diverting them from a path to violence.The findings from the case study analysis also emphasized the role of the Internet in serving as a cognitive resource to learn about religion. The Internet may also serve as a tool to prevent these processes by providing alternative resources. This would likely be best accompanied with school programs that address digital literacy and foster critical thinking regarding ideological content.

The Internet is only part of the problem of extremist radicalization so it can only be part of the solution. Censorship is difficult to implement effectively but counter-messaging could help.