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Salafist Groups’ use of Social Media and its Implications for Prevention

Salafist Groups’ use of Social Media and its Implications for Prevention
28th April 2020 Hande Abay Gaspar
In Insights

Researchers largely agree that radicalisation processes mostly include both real-world and virtual conditions. However, the interaction of both spheres has so far been understudied. Still, too little is known about how the two environments are mutually dependent and, accordingly, even less about how prevention and deradicalisation approaches can cover both spheres. In a previous article, Manjana Sold highlighted that while studying social media profiles, linkages to the real world are observable. This blog argues that this also occurs the other way around: Based on results from in-depth case studies, the article shows how radical Salafist groups in Germany use the benefits of social media to attract new members and facilitate the maintenance of the group. From these findings, possible starting points for prevention and deradicalisation work will be derived, which, if possible, cover both spheres of life.

The Cycle of Group Attachment and Group Maintenance

The case studies examined the radicalisation processes of one inactive and three active Salafist groups from large and medium-sized cities in Germany. One focus of the research was their use and impact of the Internet in general and of social media in particular. On the one hand, it was observed that in group radicalisation processes the virtual world is used as a tool for gaining new sympathisers or group members. On the other hand, it is used for the (real-world) persistence of the group. This cycle of group attachment and group maintenance takes place in several steps, which are described in the following:

Compared to non-Salafist groups and organisations, Salafist groups are not only much more active in terms of religious education but also in offering leisure activities, which makes them more attractive to young people. We can observe a number of common activities such as barbecues, excursions, brotherhood evenings and also lecture evenings. In addition to religious education, such activities aim to offer members and sympathisers a sense of belonging to a community (brotherhood) and construct or strengthen a collective identity. The first step of the cycle of group attachment and group maintenance often begins with the implementation of such an activity. With a certain media affinity, the activities carried out are then presented and promoted online. The observation of different groups has shown that joint activities are recorded in the form of text, pictures and videos and are afterwards uploaded to their own Facebook accounts or YouTube channels, but also to other (Salafist-influenced) YouTube channels like “Habibiflo Dawah Produktion”. This increases their influence by reaching the screens of people who were previously unaware of the group, but who were moving in the online Salafist milieu.

Reactions in the form of comments to the contributions are evidence that the online material is subsequently consumed by the group’s own members and sympathisers as well as triggers emotions. While group members exhibit a strengthened cohesion and confirmation of the group (group maintenance), non-members might show an increased interest, as the videos represent a source of identification (group attachment). This is also reflected by comments below the audio-visual contents, as, for example, some users explicitly state that they would like “to join in next time” or to “be part of this Ummah” (global Muslim community). Occasionally, this still is the case a long time (up to several years) after the upload date. An example is the video of the association DMG Braunschweig about the brothers’ excursion in 2015, which made a user want to be part of the group even after five years. However, by simply consuming such videos and expressing the wish to be part of the group, a sympathiser does not automatically become part of the community. Only once a real-world contact is established, a sympathiser potentially becomes an actual member of a group comprised of 10-20 people. This differs from nationwide groups such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir influenced group Generation Islam, where interested people can also become online members of the community by supporting the initiators or their campaigns. Interested persons then quickly find access to the group via so-called invitation trailers. These videos are produced by the group and contain information about upcoming religious events and leisure activities. The sympathiser can thus easily find access to real-world meetings. With the integration of new people and the increased commitment of existing members, the cycle closes and repeats with the implementation of the announced activity. The more members exchange or share content online, the greater the reach. And the greater the reach, the more interested people the group gains online, who will at least partially become involved in the group‘s real world activities.

Hence, the elements of the cycle are: the implementation of real-world activities, documentation and uploading these activities, consumption of online material, the effect on members and non-members, the announcement of upcoming meetings and finally the integration into the group. The cycle of group attachment and group maintenance described above is thus created by the amalgamation of real-world encounters and the use of digital media. On the one hand, the cycle establishes and upholds the collective identity of present members and on the other, new members are recruited. The case studies show that the use of digital media (to a large extent) enables the formation and existence of a real-world group and, conversely, that the group’s real-world existence and activities require the use of digital media. The resulting question is similar to the chicken-and-egg problem: Did the group first form itself and then use the Internet to maintain and expand the group, or did the use of the Internet by some people enable the creation of the real-world group? This is very difficult for outsiders or researchers to understand as Internet archives are not easily accessible and due to the volatility of Internet data (deletion, blocking, etc.) as well as the difficulty of reconstructing the chronological sequence of (virtual and non-virtual) activities. However, the answer to this question is not of central importance for understanding radicalisation processes. Of relevance is the insight that both life worlds constantly interact and are mutually dependent on each other. Accordingly, this also needs to be taken into account in prevention and deradicalisation measures and approaches.

Prevention needs to be tailored to both spheres

Insights into empirical research of radicalisation processes show that neither offline works without online nor vice versa. Consequently, prevention and deradicalisation work, particularly in the field of education, needs to address both spheres of life. It should not be a question of choosing between online or offline approaches. Instead, it is important to think of both worlds together, even if the focus of prevention or deradicalisation work may be on one world. However, prevention approaches often address only one of the two realms of life or both, whilst not considering their connectivity. Although prevention actors are increasingly advocating the unification of both spheres, concrete approaches and their implementation are still somewhat underdeveloped. Therefore, the design of prevention projects should ideally always include a real and virtual world component or at least consider it. A frequent challenge to operate in both areas is that actors in practice often express the wish to avoid creating a profile on social media in order to protect their identity, for example, or that they are unable to keep up with rapid developments. However, online-offline prevention does not necessarily require a presence in the virtual world. Rather, it could be based on individual relational work and actively involve joint reflection and involvement of the client’s Internet behaviour; as Gemmerli puts it “the fight against online radicalisation starts offline.” Possible approaches that encompass both environments could be those aimed at increasing awareness of real-world consequences of own online behaviour. They should focus on interfaces, such as the decision to join a group in real life which the person in question previously only knew virtually. This goes beyond the development of media skills and requires a broader reflection on how the use of media influences thoughts and leads to real-world actions.

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