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Online extremism: Research trends and gaps in the knowledge

Online extremism: Research trends and gaps in the knowledge
31st December 2019 Charlie Winter
In Insights

The Internet has long been inextricably linked with extremism, violent and otherwise. When it was still in its infancy, extremists were among the first to recognise the power of using online spaces, and, by the early 2000s, it had become instrumental to radical political movements of almost all shades. After the emergence of the Web 2.0, which brought with it user-generated content and customised online interactions, this relationship was strengthened even further, such that, before long, all mainstream social media and file-sharing platforms had been touched by extremist activism in some shape or form.

Nowadays, the Internet is no longer just an arena for extremist activism—it has become, in many cases, a primary operational environment, a place in which political ideologies are incubated, attacks conceived, and social movements made.

Online spaces cannot be inoculated from this challenge: history shows that, as technology improves, so too will extremist groups adapt their approaches, optimally reflecting their new operational environment. However, while it cannot be eradicated, it can be mitigated through informed policy choices. In order to identify the most effective way forward, a sound understanding of online extremist dynamics is required, something that can only be gleaned by evaluating antecedent trends in the history of the phenomenon.

Our upcoming literature review in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence, which draws on more than a decade and a half of academic investigations into how extremists use online spaces, undertakes this task. Surveying and digesting the academic literature on extremism online, it identifies both general dynamics and specific points of tactical and strategic evolution, guiding readers through the rich tapestry of research on the topic and providing a sense of the factors that drive the digital innovation among extremist activists.
The review examines five thematic clusters of literature: first, it attempts to define the parameters of the ‘extremism’ challenge; second, it takes a structural perspective, tracking tectonic shifts in how extremists have used online spaces since as far back as the 1980s; in the third and fourth sections, we shift our focus from structure to function, first assessing extremism online from an organisational perspective and, second, from the perspective of the user—that is, how and why extremist individuals use the Internet; the last section explores work done on the other side of the equation, countering online extremism.

Our account highlights the fact that research into this phenomenon is diverse and wide-ranging, and, especially since the early 2010s, increasingly scientific. From network-mapping to sentiment analysis and impact assessments of propaganda consumption, scholars are increasingly incorporating small- and large-N datasets into their work. Such quantitative rigour is sorely needed. However, it should not come at the expense of insights that can only be derived from qualitative exploration, so scholars would do well to continue focusing their attention on developing and implementing mixed-methods research designs—in this increasingly crowded marketplace, there are still a large number of tangible social and security benefits that can be borne of their efforts.

Four areas in particular stand out as ripe for more intensive investigation. First, more work must be done on the interaction between public and private counter-extremism practitioners. Routinely in recent years, governments have called for greater proactivity on the part of social media and file-sharing corporations without specifying a realistic end goal, and, when private corporations engage in counter-extremism work in response to this pressure, their efforts often appear to be borne of intuition rather than empirical research. It would serve both policymakers and their private sector counterparts to inject a more strategic set of insights into their efforts—insights that can only be gleaned through long-term, future-forward empirical research projects. In particular, academics should engage in experimental research to evaluate the implications of the algorithm-led negative measures that are being called for by governments and implemented by companies. After all, policies that seem like a good idea today may turn out to be counter-productive in the long-run.

Second, and linked to the above, is the need for more research into the legal and ethical implications of media censorship and account suspension. Often in recent years, governments have made impossible calls to private companies, demanding that they eradicate extremist ‘safe spaces’ online. There have been few attempts to systematically parse through the moral and ethical rationale for the kind of aggressive monitoring—and steering—of public discourse that policymakers are calling for. Academics would do well to investigate as to whether such a utopian vision is possible, let alone desirable. It is down to them to consider long-term implications when governments will not, and to objectively weigh up the potential for the emergence of other negative externalities further down the line.

Third, more time should be spent on assessing and evaluating how public-private partnerships have developed and evolved in recent years. This research should incorporate the whole spectrum of counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policymaking, examining in particular the impact and implications of the increasingly prominent role of private corporations in public matters—how, for example, have social media and file-sharing companies contributed to security and social cohesion, and have their interventions always been positive? What sort of impact have their attempts to stimulate civil society counter-extremist activism actually had? And, connectedly, do counter-narrative campaigns have any discernible impact? If so, how can that impact be measured?

Finally, and most importantly, academics must spend more time examining how individuals and organisations associated with extremisms other than jihadism use the Internet. While groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State have justifiably occupied the attention of policymakers and researchers for much of the last two decades, this situation is now untenable. Right-wing extremism today is both more globalised and more prominent—on- and offline—than it has been for many years. By better understanding virtual dynamics among right-wing extremists, policymakers will be better able to counteract their newfound self-assurance. The online behaviours of its proponents are just as revealing as those of jihadist extremists, and easily as deserving of research, and it is critical that academics take the initiative.