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Social Media as a Mirror of External Circumstances: Insights Into a Radical Group

Social Media as a Mirror of External Circumstances: Insights Into a Radical Group
10th June 2020 Mika Josephine Moeller
In Insights

Radicalisation processes take place in a field of tension between the actor and the outside world. External reactions and circumstances can have a supportive but also a rather negative and escalating effect on the dynamics of group development, depending on how they are perceived. Radical groups often react to circumstances in the outside world, incorporate them into their own discourse and provide their followers with a processed interpretation of them. This can be observed particularly well on social media. Within the scope of a thematic content analysis, we analysed how external circumstances were received within the community and what influence they had on the dynamics of the group Millatu Ibrahim.

The case: Millatu Ibrahim

The group Millatu Ibrahim existed from autumn 2011 to summer 2012 and was a result of the differentiating Salafist scene in Germany at that time. The group has openly represented salafi-jihadist ideology. Due to their large media presence and their frank messages and tone, they marked a new level of quantity and quality in German Salafist activism at the time. The videos they posted often referred to international and national incidents and usually combined this with  encouragement to remain steadfast and to regard adverse events as an opportunity to prove oneself before God. Besides social media they were also very active on the streets, for example for Quran distributions. They were soon noticed by actors such as right-wing counter-movements as well as security authorities. They were affected by police measures and raids and later also involved in violent confrontations. As a result, the group was banned, and their mosque was closed. Following this, many group members left Germany and travelled to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad.

Within a larger case study, it was possible to reconstruct the group’s online activities. From September 2011 to August 2012 at least 420 videos from the group’s environment were published, with 270 produced by the leading trio. From these, 56 video titles and 18 complete videos could be reconstructed. Due to insufficient complete reconstructions of all contributions, it was not practicable to conduct a quantitative analysis over time. We have catalogued the available dates and titles and assigned each contribution to a topic in focus and conducted further in-depth analysis of the videos. Based on this data, the influence of external circumstances on the group’s own discourse was analysed and how the group developed was considered.

Online reception of external circumstances

Analysing themes of online contributions showed a change over time. During the phase in which the group was established, global issues such as the changing lifestyle to fulfil everyday religious practice complying with the Quran and Sunna and conversion to Islam were particularly present. Although the group supported revolutionary political activism in Muslim countries, the thematic and practical focus was not on political activism but on organising and mobilising a strict purist activism among their followers. Hence, the stigmatisation and repression against Muslims worldwide was a theme that was present throughout the group’s existence. Online content called for support for Muslims and especially Muslim prisoners. Due to the polarising nature of the videos, the group and its members were increasingly exposed to counter-reactions from civil society, media, and security authorities. The output then became more explicit and showed determination to not to be shut down by repression and external influences and in continuing dawah despite resistance. The situation gradually intensified after violent clashes with the police during a demonstration. The increasing external pressure on the group and the resulting limited ability to act was addressed in further videos that also had a mobilising character. Stigmatisation and criminalisation were seen as positive confirmations of the efforts for God. In light of contentious interactions and confrontations with the state and counterparts on a national level as well as the escalating situation in Syria and Iraq, it was no longer only about the continuation of dawah. Instead, the focus was placed on the duty to defend Islam and the willingness to make sacrifices.

The example of Millatu Ibrahim shows that recent happenings and circumstances were embedded in the group’s discourse. Strengthening the in-group as well as steadfastness towards the out-group was constitutive from the beginning. However, external circumstances and the situation in Syria and Iraq have not changed the group’s intention as such but have had an escalating effect on tendencies that already existed.

Social media as a (non-) significant source of data

Contributions on social media can be used for external presentation but also for communication with the community and offer a framework for interpretation. The analysis of social media contributions is a worthwhile approach for radicalisation research, as possible risk potentials can be assessed and a general understanding of the group can be gained.

However, by only examining online communication, information about the intentions and further development of a group is insufficient. Hence, it must be taken into account that communication does not only take place online and that the group consists of many individuals who are also following their own dynamics. Nevertheless, in addition to actions of a group and its members, it is necessary to analyse the respective internal logic of action and interpretation. Contributions on social media provide timely insights, which should not be dismissed under the aspect of pure propaganda. Online content should be taken into account to capture a wider context and to detect relevant conditional factors in the radicalisation process as demonstrated by the example of Millatu Ibrahim.

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