How are online conversations impacting the identity development of young Canadian Muslims?

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The Emergence of Violent Narratives in the Life-Course Trajectories of Online Forum Participants

News stories often discuss the radicalization impact of the internet on younger people, but what is the reality? Since 9/11, young Muslims have endured their religion being associated with major terrorist events. Like most people of their age, they spend a considerable amount of time online, viewing media and chatting on social networking sites. What are the contents of these online conversations and how are they impacting the identity development of these youths?

Levey and Bouchard collected and analyzed public conversations from three online forums focused on Islamic issues. Data was collected from a sample of 96 Canadian individuals. A total of 282,411 posts were extracted and analyzed between 2002 and 2015. Forum posts were first analyzed using a text analysis computer program which attributed a sentiment score to each, related to the negative or positive connotations of their words. The same posts were then manually reviewed with a focus on individual narratives. Users who started on the forum during their adolescence were compared with those who started as adults. The authors wanted to assess whether certain turning points such as entry into adulthood or into university were associated with changes in the nature of sentiment expressed online.

The overall sentiment scores for minors lowered after they turned 19, suggesting an increase in negativity after transitioning into adulthood. There was also an increase in negativity between the first and second half of the adult group’s posts, suggesting a similar trajectory of forum interactions over time. There was no noticeable change in the sentiment of the posts made by minors, supporting the assumption that becoming an adult may be a significant turning point for the nature of their conversations online.

Two main themes were identified among the reviewed individual narratives. Minors and adults who showed consistency in their narratives were the most negative, but did not develop into (or out of) their type of online behavior as they transitioned into adulthood. Narrative analysis also confirmed an increased frustration and overall negativity during the latter periods of forum participants’ time online. The changes seemed related to new topics of interest developing over time rather than changes in opinion. The most negative or radical individuals did not appear to sway others, as their most negative arguments were either ignored or refuted instead. Most minors did not develop more negative or extreme narratives. Those who did merely increased their use of negative words; their expressed thoughts did not become more extreme. It was common for forum users to progressively develop their interests towards more controversial topics such as politics and international affairs.

Conversations on online forums dedicated to Islamic issues do not appear to sway Muslim youth towards more extreme thought.