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The Amalgamation of Virtuality and Reality in Radicalisation Processes

The Amalgamation of Virtuality and Reality in Radicalisation Processes
23rd April 2020 Manjana Sold
In Insights

Virtuality has long since become an integral part of the world we live in today. It is thus not surprising that the virtual world is also used by those already radicalised and those who are in the midst of a radicalisation process. Accordingly, recent years have seen an increase in research that is particularly interested in the online component of radicalisation processes. Although the majority of researchers agree that there is no pure online radicalisation and that real-world contacts are always an important part of the process, research often continues to be one-sided. This blog calls for a change of focus by considering both spheres as equal components to the process and by examining their interactions. Findings from online case studies stemming from social media profiles of Salafist and right-wing individuals illustrate the amalgamation of online and offline radicalisation.

Are we asking the wrong questions?

Research on radicalisation processes addresses both the virtual and offline world. However, academics (far too) often question when and to what extent the Internet takes effect in radicalisation processes. Since every process is unique, there can be no satisfactory answer to this question. Hence, the question of whether, how and what role the Internet plays in radicalisation processes is not what we should be asking ourselves. Instead, we need to ask how virtuality and reality are mutually dependent in radicalisation processes. Thus, it is not about proportion, but rather about the interplay that we should expect to gain knowledge from. In this sense, it is necessary to actively search for entanglements in and of both life spheres. In the following, a few examples from research on Salafist and right-wing radicalisation will be given. The blog will shed light on real-world references that can be observed in German Facebook profiles of radicalised or radicalising individuals.

Offline references in online activities: Insights from empirical data

Generally, there are three dimensions in which real-world behavior is observable in online social media profiles such as on Facebook: (1.) relationship, (2.) mobilisation or recruitment and (3.) action. Regarding the relationship dimension, three further distinctions can be made: Firstly, there are relationships between people who are only “friends” in the virtual world. Social media in general and Facebook in particular play a decisive role for establishing initial contact and in recruiting new sympathizers. A similar attitude is easily recognised in the content of posts and comments, or expressed by like-statements. In addition, as Facebook’s inherent algorithms encourage the search for people who are alike, a user also receives friend suggestions of people with whom the user has common contacts with or who share similarities. It is therefore not surprising that many of these “friendships” only exist online. Secondly, in some posts, however, there is evidence that real-world relationships are emerging from the virtual world. Sharing a similar attitude and virtual sympathy can be deemed as sufficient factors to get to know a virtual “friend” in the real world. A low inhibition threshold for establishing contact does the rest. For example, posts can be observed in which a user is asked whether he or she has time for a meeting, for example to study the Quran together. Thirdly, the reversed process is also observable – people know each other in the real world and network online.

The analysis of profile content makes it possible to draw inferences about (inter)actions in the real world. The mobilisation dimension shows that actions are planned and advertised online. A few examples of such activities include making arrangements to take part in “Street-Dawah” (invitation to Islam), visiting mosques together with “brothers” and “sisters” or meeting comrades, or participating in marches and joint events. Similar to other individuals, radicals and extremists also use the amalgamation of the virtual and real world to their advantage and derive numerous benefits from it. Online and offline mobilisation are closely linked in extreme realms and both spheres are used to attract as many people as possible to their ideology. A greater integration into the scene is achieved when people not only network online with like-minded people, but also maintain contacts in the analogue world. This is demonstrated by the willingness and invitation of others to meet or participate in relevant events. In some cases, as an insight into Facebook profiles also shows, the virtual and real peer groups merge. By referring to activities and events such as demonstrations or signature campaigns, online and offline participation in activities and events is likely to increase. On the other hand, in the wake of such actions, videos and news about the activities and events are disseminated online via various channels. Thus, the virtual world somewhat acts as an extension of the real world. Reusing created pictures and reports etc. for mobilisation purposes in the virtual world can increase the potential for successful mobilisation.

Regarding the dimension of action, profile contents also show instructions for action. These can, for example, range from information on an “appropriate dress code” to religious practices and instructions on how to build weapons. Also in the aftermath of past attacks it has also become clear that contacts in the real world and what is seen, read and shared online usually play a (central) role. Some of the attackers claimed to have acted as copycats, to have found inspiration online or to have watched corresponding videos. Online content can thus be decisive for real-world actions by playing an inspirational or instructive role. An example for this is the case of Arid Uka, who in 2011 carried out an assassination of US soldiers at Frankfurt Airport, by fatally shooting two and further injuring two others. Uka claimed that online propaganda videos had inspired his actions. The Internet offers benefits to extremists of all kinds, ensuring the survival and spread of ideology and making a form of leaderless resistance more real. The actors become less accessible as both spheres offer numerous possibilities and communication opportunities as well as the option to change from one sphere to the other in the event of a threat or persecution. Individuals like Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks, who act as loners in the real world and avoid contacts with other people, sometimes seek and find contact in the virtual world, where they might find a peer group that shares their views and perceptions.

Rethinking in research is needed

These illustrative research findings once again prove that radicalisation processes do not take place solely online or offline. Nowadays, the digital and real-world spheres of life are too closely interwoven, enabling and supporting each other. Online and offline worlds can no longer be thought of as separate spheres and should therefore not be investigated as separate milieus. Their fusion also creates new challenges for research on radicalisation. In order to investigate the interaction of both spheres, it is necessary to shift the focus from a single sphere of life to both of them. Partly such rethinking has already taken place. However, it remains often only as an appeal and has been for years, while in reality empirical research is only carried out to a limited extent. This requires rethinking at the cognitive level and the use of methodological pluralism at the research-practical level. As in research, a reevaluation has already begun in prevention and deradicalisation approaches, which must also be taken into account when it comes to implementation.

This post is also part of the PANDORA project blog series, see here for more information and all posts from this series.