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The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-Wing Extremists

The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-Wing Extremists
7th August 2020 Tiana Gaudette

In the past five years, it has become increasingly common for practitioners and policymakers in the Western world to draw from the insights of former extremists to generate knowledge on the prevalence and contours of violent extremism and terrorism. While some researchers and practitioners have raised concerns about including formers in this space, ranging from discussions about their reliability and credibility to questions about whether their inclusion could raise concerns in the public sphere, others have argued that formers can provide valuable insight into issues that terrorism scholars, amongst many others, are concerned with. To illustrate, researchers have shown a growing interest in drawing from the voices of former extremists to address key questions in terrorism and extremism studies, including – but not limited to – empirical studies focusing on processes of radicalisation to extremism, processes of deradicalisation and disengagement from extremism, or both pathways in and out of extremism. Some research is also beginning to emerge on how formers think that violent extremism can be combated as well as the impact of using formers to prevent violent extremism.

Regardless of the above-mentioned developments, scholars who are working in the field of violent online political extremism have been much slower to bring formers to the table. This is in light of the fact that many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers continue to raise questions about the role of the Internet in facilitating violent extremism.

With a view to furthering our understanding of the interplay between the Internet and violent extremism, we conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists who were involved in violent racist skinhead groups. The following is a summary of the key findings from this study.

The role of the Internet in facilitating violent radicalisation

With regard to how formers in the current study were first exposed to violent right-wing extremist ideologies and groups, the results are mixed: approximately one-third of the study participants were first exposed online while the remainder were exposed via offline interactions. This finding aligns with empirical work that highlights the complex and multi-dimensional nature of initial exposure to violent extremism, particularly of violent right-wing extremist content and jihadi content.

For our study participants, however, exposure most commonly occurred after a “friend” in the offline world who they knew and trusted directed them to violent extremist materials online – a finding that is supported by empirical research on the importance of trust in attracting individuals to violent right-wing extremist movements. Such a finding also mirrors empirical work which found that the Internet played a secondary role in radicalising U.S. extremists to violence, wherein it was used to “reaffirm or advance pre-existing extremist beliefs that were first acquired through face-to-face relationships.”

Nonetheless, it is worth adding that exposure to extremist content online played a critical role in sparking participants’ interest in violent extremist ideologies. But what is also apparent in our study is that it is those who are susceptible to being recruited into violent extremist groups and have a desire to “belong to something”, as one participant put it, that sparks initial interest in the violent extremist ideologies. This need to be part of the collective is a key factor discussed in a number of empirical studies on violent radicalisation and right-wing extremist movements.

Our study’s findings also reveal that, regardless of how individuals are first exposed to violent extremist ideologies and groups, it is the Internet that eventually facilitates processes of violent radicalisation by enabling them to immerse themselves in extremist content and networks – a finding supported by empirical research on the role of the Internet in facilitating an array of violent extremist movements in general and the extreme right-wing movement in particular.

In addition, interviewees in our study oftentimes reported that seasoned or veteran extreme-right wing adherents “took them under their wing” in online settings, providing them with information about the movement and offering them a sense of belonging that participants were seeking. Within this context, formers in the current study also highlighted the importance of exposure to white power music online in facilitating their process of violent radicalisation. Indeed, the influence of white power music as a recruitment tool for violent extremists has been underscored in a number of empirical studies.

The role of the Internet in connecting the on- and offline worlds of violent extremists

Our study findings highlight an important interaction between the on- and offline worlds of violent right-wing extremists which are intertwined with extremist activities, identities, and a need for security. To illustrate, formers in the current study believe that the Internet can serve as a gateway for individuals to engage in violent extremist activities offline, connecting adherents in the online world to the offline world, oftentimes through the online promotion of offline events (e.g., concerts, rallies, protests, and gatherings) – a set of findings that align with empirical work emphasising an important relationship between online interactions with offline extremist events underpinning various right-wing extremist movements.

Worth adding here is that most of our study participants were concerned about their on- and offline security during their involvement in violent extremist groups, noting that they modified their on- and offline behaviours to avoid detection and infiltration from law enforcement and anti-fascist groups. Similar tactics have been adopted by a newer generation of right-wing extremists who in recent years have exploited various encrypted online platforms and messaging apps to avoid being tracked and detected.

Interestingly, though, is that, despite our study participants’ security concerns, most of them – unlike the newer generation of violent right-wing extremists who are active and communicate anonymously in various encrypted online spaces – maintained the same identities in both their on- and offline worlds and displayed their roles in the movement (e.g., as recruiters or promoters) similarly in both worlds. Discussed within this context was how the Internet was flooded with “Net Nazis” or “Internet Warriors” (i.e., adherents who are very active online but will not meet others offline), which reflects what some in terrorism and extremism studies have described as activity involving individuals who behave more violently online when there is a perception of increased anonymity and privacy there.

For much more on these findings and the nature of the study in general, we encourage you to read the full manuscript which was recently published in Terrorism and Political Violence.

Tiana Gaudette is a Research Associate at the International CyberCrime Research Centre (ICCRC) at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She recently earned an MA in criminology from SFU.

Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University (MSU). He is also a Research Fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence and a Research Associate at the ICCRC.

Vivek Venkatesh holds the UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism. He also serves as Director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance and is Full Professor of Inclusive Practices in Visual Arts in the Department of Art Education at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada.