The world is experiencing a new wave of far-right terrorism. There are concerning developments. First, the use of online gaming platforms for recruitment and radicalisation. Second, the decreasing age of potential perpetrators of terrorist acts, as noted by EUROPOL in its 2020 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT). Some countries have reported an increase in the number of children and adolescents who have become involved in far-right terrorist activities. For example, twenty-one under-18 year-olds arrested in the year to April 2021 in the United Kingdom were linked to extreme right-wing terrorism. These arrests made up three-quarters of all children arrested in that period. The majority of children involved in terrorism (overall thirteen per cent compared to five per cent in the previous year) belonged to the far-right category. Militant far-right extremist groups have also been created and led by teenagers. The militant group, British Hand, was founded by a fifteen-year-old. Similarly, the Feuerkrieg Division was founded by a thirteen-year-old.
The increase in the involvement of children in militant far-right online activity is a strategic attempt by far-right actors around the world to recruit and radicalise vulnerable groups. For example, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin openly admitted on a white supremacist radio show in 2018 that he aimed to target children as young as eleven, explaining his goal to “give this [ideology] to teenagers and even before teenagers”. He created and administered one of the most infamous English language neo-Nazi commentary and messaging boards, The Daily Stormer. The far-right has also attempted to recruit children through fashion, music, and even graphic novels.
Online gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry and one in which large numbers of children and teenagers are immersed. Far-right recruiters are using gaming platforms to target children. In 2020, the European Union Counterterrorism Coordinator warned that the digital gaming scene might become a key supporting hub for terrorist activities and recruitment. The EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) referred to online gaming platforms such as Steam or Twitch hotbeds for radicalisation, summarising various different far-right strategies for the use of gaming contexts, or assessing the specific forms of far-right grooming in these environments.
Despite these warnings, a 2021 review of the gaming research landscape concluded that there is a “pressing need for further research on how would-be extremists, terrorists, and their sympathisers engage with one another in more general mainstream game spaces”. Policymakers, counter-radicalisation practitioners, tech companies, as well as law enforcement and intelligence officials urgently need to know the ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ to better understand – or rather begin understanding at all – the mechanisms involved in extremist recruitment and radicalisation within online gaming milieus. Therefore, this Insight investigates the cases of two twelve-year-old children who were radicalised through online gaming platforms, based on the findings from a recently published study. The core of this process was a highly dynamic process of ‘finding each other’; playing online video games together led to relationships and trust between children and openly extremist individuals. The gaming activity acted like a social-emotional ‘glue’ between them, opening the doors to follow-up indoctrination and radicalisation.
Exploring Online Radicalisation on Gaming Platforms
Our new study ‘From Gaming to Hating’ published in September 2022 in Political Psychology aims to address this gap in our understanding of the targeting of children by far-right groups through gaming. We aimed to understand exactly what happens when children are drawn into extreme right ideologies within the online gaming world. We obtained access to anonymised police investigation files for two cases of radicalisation of two twelve-year-olds: one reached an early stage of extreme right radicalisation and the other an advanced stage that included writing and publishing a terrorist manifesto and threatening an attack. This project addressed the following key questions:
- What radicalisation pathways can be seen in the cases?
- Where and how were gaming platforms involved?
- What role did gaming platforms play in the radicalisation processes of the two cases as far as it can be determined?
- Which push and pull factors driving the radicalisation pathways were visible?
Both children’s radicalisation pathways became publicly visible through concerning behavioural changes within the school environment including showing Nazi symbols, inquiring about weapons and explosives, or watching violent extremist propaganda material on their mobile phones. Both first got into contact with extreme right gamers via Roblox, a gaming platform, by playing historical strategy games and befriending gamers who openly displayed extreme right symbols on their profiles. The children were invited to join extreme-right Discord groups by their new-found friends and were then removed from the original Roblox gaming platform. They were then subjected to significant ideological indoctrination and encouraged to engage with hateful, particularly anti-Semitic, propaganda and the glorification of National Socialism.
We found strong evidence to support Valentini et al.’s concept of ‘Onlife’ – hybrid connections between online and offline realities. In both cases, offline experiences such as bullying or family conflicts impacted online actions, and facilitated discussions and advice, which in turn led to adapted offline behaviour. In short, at least for the two cases in point, there was little meaningful distinction between their online and offline worlds.
The ideological indoctrination that occurred on Discord was based on social and emotional ties, which, despite a lack of personal offline contacts among the involved persons, was established through an apolitical leisure activity: playing video games. Sharing an interest in video games can be an effective source for building trust, social rapport, and respect, providing the social-emotional glue that binds potential recruits to extremist actors in the absence of other direct personal connections (e.g. going to extremist concerts or rallies together). This connection created a form of emotional dependency upon the extreme right actors and groups. Both children described these bonds as “friendships” or “belonging,” which they were afraid to lose by leaving the Discord group or not obeying orders. The far-right Discord groups effectively suppressed the option to join any other alternative groups on gaming platforms that might have provided these children with social rapport, recognition, or significance.
The influence of the extreme right on the two children was enforced through a virtually constructed social hierarchy. Instructions or orders to perform certain offline actions were obeyed because they came from perceived leaders in the relevant Discord groups. These virtual hierarchies were infused with meaning and efficacy through the connection to specific benefits, such as access to certain information or rights within the group. Further, being part of the hierarchy and a member of the group was given the aura of elitism and exclusivity through initial access barriers such as pledging an oath or answering a questionnaire. These methods created feelings of pride or recognition for the children and further decreased the perception of alternative options.
What, then, was the role of gaming platforms in the radicalisation pathways of the two case studies? We find support for the main conclusions drawn in a recent study series by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, that open and targeted organisational recruitment of outsiders through far-right groups appears to be very rare. From what we observed, video games were not used as strategic far-right recruitment tools. However, this conclusion was limited by the fact we had no insight into offline conversations, private chats, or anything outside of what was secured by the police.
We observed a passive approach to recruitment and indoctrination. The far-right contacts in these two cases did not actively approach potential recruits. However, they also did not hide their extremist ideological positions. On the contrary, they openly used codes and symbols associated with the extreme right while engaging with other gamers. This alone might have been done to generate initial interest by some users to reach out and establish first contact.
In both cases, the children were fully aware of the ideology of their ‘friends’ and the groups they interacted with on gaming platforms. At no point did the children express surprise when they were confronted more directly with recruitment and radicalisation attempts. This suggests a certain “provoked interest” as the main self-selection mechanism. In short, playing a World War II strategic simulation game that uses multiple references to Nazi Germany (for example) was the background for younger players to form a deeper interest in the topic. The two children approached other gamers who appeared to “know more” about these backgrounds based on their use of the same symbols, references, and codes in their virtual identifiers (avatars, user pages, language).
What was clear in our two cases was the effectiveness of gaming environments as social spaces for meeting and exchanging views with other people, including extremists. This process of social interaction based on mutually shared interests and hobbies was not solely driven by far-right gamers. Both children actively sought such contacts as well, for various reasons. The mechanism that resulted in the two becoming radicalised by right-wing extremists can more fittingly be described as a highly dynamic process of ‘finding each other’; gaming as a social activity provided the sphere in which social contacts and networks were initiated, leading to engagement with closed ideologically extreme groups.
Finally, in our two cases, some push and pull factors driving far-right radicalisation were observed. Both children showed strong indications of parental neglect and family conflict, as well as a lack of (offline) social integration or leisure activities outside of the gaming community. There is additional evidence of bullying, lack of self-esteem, and a strong desire for recognition and social significance. Based on the children’s own statements, those offline factors significantly impacted their desire to integrate into a (perceived) exclusive or elite online social community in their search for belonging and status, as well as the reluctance to leave these groups.
The radicalisation process, at least in our case studies, did not occur in the dark corners of the internet, away from the children’s family and friends or social environments. Both cases communicated their needs and interests clearly in their real lives as well; they displayed unmistakable and concerning warning behaviours from the earliest stages of the radicalisation processes onwards. However, the two cases’ turbulent and neglectful familial situations and wider social environments meant that these behaviours were overlooked.
The extreme right actors involved in the recruitment process did not disguise themselves on the initial gaming platforms. This lack of any attempt to hide extremist beliefs and associations represents an opportunity for the platforms to intervene. A lack of knowledge among parents, teachers, social workers and moderators about these gaming platforms to understand the signs, recognise the codes and symbols, and even understand the basics of online gaming environments played one role in the failure to prevent radicalisation. Our study suggests a need for raising awareness, providing support and expert counselling, and investing in building and maintaining a democratic culture on gaming platforms. Recently, the preventing and countering violent extremism field has recognised the need for strategies and programs adapted to the online gaming space. This is visible for example through the establishment of a new Extremism and Gaming Research Network and a research grant of almost $700,000 to study radicalisation in gaming by the Department of Homeland Security in 2022. Our study is evidence that such initiatives are much needed to build a solid foundation for effective countermeasures against extremist radicalisation in the online gaming world.