This series of Insights draws on the GNET report by Inform: ‘Cults and Online Violent Extremism’. Inform are an independent educational charity providing information about minority religions and sects which is as accurate, up-to-date and as evidence-based as possible. This Insight introduces the first grouping of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups. Other Insights in this series can be found here.
This Insight series has offered a more nuanced understanding of cultic activity online by proposing three groupings that may glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups, ‘Online Cultic Milieus’ and ‘Cultic Fandoms’. Each of these online movements offers a different way of being ‘cultish’ in the online environment. The complexity of these movements and the individuals who interact with them needs to be understood for accurate risk assessments of the likelihood of violence by groups or individuals. It is hoped that these categories will allow those analysing the potential for online environments to incubate violent extremists to understand the nature and variety of online milieus and interactions more holistically.
It is important to note that a particular individual’s online activity can crosscut these three descriptive categories; an individual may engage more or less superficially with any of the groups and milieus. Tracking the depth of an individual’s engagement or the tightness of a group identity in a particular space may prove significant in exploring the likelihood of online activity translating into violent extremism.
To this end, we suggest looking in depth at the nature of a given individual’s online activity. Some indicative questions drawn from the social scientific study of religious groups associated with violent extremism would include:
- In what way is a given individual engaging with identity construction, symbolism and ideology?
- Are individuals primarily interested in adopting ‘edgy’ symbolism?
- Is there a deep engagement with a complex existing religious ideology and/or other groups in the milieu that have established offline activities?
- Are online interests focused on ‘marginalised knowledge’ and distrust of established authority figures?
- To what extent does online activity focus grievances against a specific individual/group who could form a target for violent extremist action?
- Are the in- and out-groups clearly articulated? Are out-groups dehumanised?
- Is there a deep fascination for harmful practices and an interest in the tactical specifics of violent events? Or is there more of a ‘true crime’ research focus?
- Are online discussions centred around empathy and understanding for the perpetrators of an atrocity with a hesitation to condone actions?
Also important to consider is the relationship between the online cultic environment and any potential offline communities:
- Are online activities associated with offline direct-action groups?
- Is there an underlying offline religious community that incorporates elements of ideology, practice and community?
- Are personal connections primarily online, intense and focused on direct-action planning in the form of copycat violent extremism?
Drawing from decades of sociological research into new religious movements, the attraction of any individual to an online cultic environment is likely to have a particular demographic slant; some groups within society are going to find a specific ideology more appealing than others. Although much research emphasises psychological vulnerabilities, new religious movement studies in contrast emphasise situational vulnerability. Often, an individual’s interest in an extremist group or ideology is less a sign of inherent weakness than it is a consequence of existential angst, social isolation and a perception of a lack of attractive alternative life paths.
It is also important to note the role that online community-building plays in de-radicalisation. An important mechanism of control in more traditional high-demand groups is isolating channels of communication to prevent members from sharing negative experiences within the group with one another. Inform is aware of many cases in which members who had experienced harm in a particular organisation began to share stories online, developed a clearer understanding of damaging behaviour within the group and formed an alternative group identity with new community formations. Online social networks can have a crucial role in deradicalising and separating from unhealthy or ‘cultic’ environments.
There are reasonable and evidence-based concerns that engagement in online cultic spaces will lead to copycat violence and other forms of violent extremism. It is important to remember that, by looking at the wider context of engagement with cultic online activity, these trajectories are rare. Engagement with online cultic spaces in no way leads inextricably or irrevocably to violent extremism. A nuanced risk assessment, looking case-by-case at individuals and their engagement with various online cultic spaces is essential in estimating the nature and extent of the risk of violent extremism.