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Cumulative Extremism Online: How Moral and Strategic Aims Predict Narrative Escalation

Cumulative Extremism Online: How Moral and Strategic Aims Predict Narrative Escalation
6th April 2020 Dr. William Allchorn
In Insights

Often when extremisms come about, they don’t occur in isolation. In the UK, for example, the emergence of extremist mobilisations have occurred subsequent to high-profile counter-movements, counter-protests and terror attacks that suggest a ‘connectivity between extremisms’ (Ranstrop 2010). In the far-right space, we’ve seen this in the creation of the English Defence League (EDL) in June 2009 after Luton’s chapter of Al-Muhajiroun picketed the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment. Moreover, some eight years later in June 2017, we saw this happen again – with the creation of the Football Lads Alliance in response to several Islamist extremist attacks in March to May 2017. Some have even applied this concept of cumulative extremism (or ‘the way in which one form of extremism can feed off and magnify other forms’ (2006: 205)) to sectarian conflict –  with one scholar noting how the ‘mutually incompatible goals’ of Loyalist and Republican movements saw an escalation from peaceful protest to lethal sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from the early 1960’s to 1972 (Carter 2017).

In a recent book chapter (Allchorn 2020), I decided to test the concept of cumulative extremism but in the online space – looking at forms of escalation between far-right and Islamist extremist groups in the seven days before and after the aforementioned terrorist attacks that shook the UK between March-June 2017. Much ink had been spilt on looking at offline cases of CE (McCabe & Pupcenoks 2013; Busher & Macklin 2015; Carter 2017; & Carter 2020) but little had been devoted to looking at online manifestations of reciprocal radicalisation. Moreover, even less studies have been devoted to looking at narrative and ideological forms of escalation – with the prime exception being Matthew Feldman’s (2012) Faith Matters essay looking at the role of the ‘clash of civilisations’ narratives in radicalising the European and US far-right.

What the study unearthed was interesting – and also perhaps a tiny bit counter-intuitive. Whilst in some cases there was clear radicalisation in discourse amongst far-right actors (i.e. British National Party and EDL) following the Westminster and London Bridge attacks, the radical Islamist group surveyed (i.e. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT)) actually saw a moderation in rhetoric after the June 2017 Finsbury Park Mosque attack. Moreover, and going back to the far-right, the second group studied (i.e. EDL) also saw a latent but not instantaneous escalation in relation to the May 2017 Manchester Terror attack – and even then, the tone of such coverage was fairly muted. This is not say that such group’s rhetoric was less ideologically radical than that of the general population but that the change in rhetoric before and after these attacks veered away or showed very little in the way of any appreciable escalation – based on the tone, themes, individuals identified and ideological claims made – seven days after each of these attacks.

How do we account for this lack of escalation? One of the most likely reasons for these so-called ‘missing spirals’ (Busher & Macklin 2015) rests less in questioning the validity of the cumulative extremism (CE) concept and more in the strategic aims and dynamics of the extremist groups surveyed. As recent research on the internal breaks on extremist escalation suggests (Busher et al 2019), moral norms as well as strategic logics contained within the group’s ideologies and aims tend to dictate forms of violent and non-violent escalation. In the negative cases of CE in the online space, therefore, these were due to actors deliberately deciding to not focus on the attacks or potential antagonists of the attacks – with the EDL largely fixating on child sexual exploitation at the time of the Manchester attack and HT directly targeting the UK government and media rather than far-right groups per se after Finsbury park. This is instructive for future research and interventions as it points to the mediating effect of ideology when groups are considering violent and non-violent escalation, and more importantly why some extremist movements don’t resort to violence at all. This is something that the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right is keen to explore as part of an ongoing project examining radical right narratives and counter narratives going forward.