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The New Online Radicals: The Third Generation of Online Radicalisation

The New Online Radicals: The Third Generation of Online Radicalisation
4th October 2023 Jacob Ware
In Insights


When a 13-year-old boy was caught by Estonian police in early 2020 leading a major international terrorist organisation, shockwaves rippled through the Western counterterrorism community. But it was merely the latest uncomfortable milestone in a long-term trend of extremist material growing increasingly accessible online. “Accessing a world of hate online today is as easy as it was tuning into Saturday morning cartoons on television,” Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League opined, offering a painful comparison illustrating how modern extremism has replaced more benign pastimes. The capture provided perhaps the most shocking—if not outright damning—evidence yet of the increasingly out-of-control impact of social media on the extremism and terrorism stage: individuals in their early teens were not just being recruited by neo-Nazis but were actively recruiting, and leading, their peers.

In his seminal The Diffusion of Military Power, the University of Pennsylvania’s Michael C. Horowitz describes major military innovations (MMIs), defining them as “the introduction and spread of new means of generating military power.” Social media has proved a near-unprecedented MMI for extremists and terrorists, allowing them to reach new constituents and inspire violence from oceans away. But this development has not been uniform, nor has it been sudden; it has progressed, and it continues to progress, in successive generations, which—like variants of the coronavirus—seem to overtake and eventually dominate the previous strain. Understanding these generations and the transitions between them might carry important counterterrorism implications—not least by highlighting the critical need to predict the next generation, and its tools, and work to interdict it before it again inspires new violence.

This Insight summarises a report recently published by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism (PoE), briefly examining the three generations of online radicalisation before exploring the counterterrorism implications. 

The Genesis of Online Radicalisation

“Hate went online,” in the words of Chip Berlet, in 1984, through multiple bulletin board systems created by pioneers of modern far-right extremism such as Louis Beam and Tom Metzger. That first generation of online radicalisation was characterised by ambition and fits-and-starts but promised great potential for the world’s underground plotters. Extremist groups and networks spread propaganda more broadly and reached new recruits, while training and command-and-control were now possible through virtual formats.

If the dawn of the first generation was heralded by the invention of the computer, the second generation of online radicalisation was born in the Harvard dorm room where Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. The second generation, which emerged in the mid-2000s, was sustained on the massive, public-facing social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram—which grew into tech behemoths in a new, more connected world. Unlike bulletin board systems and early forums like Stormfront, which were more esoteric and therefore required specific interest and knowledge of how to access, the public-facing profile allowed radicals to share their extreme ideology with friends and family, while the centralised social marketplace brought together extremists across borders and oceans. 

The Islamic State’s roaring blitzkrieg across the Levant in the middle of the last decade provided clear evidence of social media’s increasingly revolutionary impact on modern warfare. In the second generation, extremists congregated in echo chambers which intensified radicalisation, while algorithmic radicalisation sped up the process. Terrorist organisations grew less important, and more extremist ideologies turned to violence. Violence was increasingly defined by lone actors with little training, attacking soft targets using more rudimentary weaponry.

The Third Generation

The Estonian teen, however, was firmly a product of the third generation of social media radicalisation—young, radicalised on encrypted chatrooms, communicating with like-minded peers far away and himself radicalising others, and inspired by an eclectic mix of extremist traditions, such as the blending in some cases of World War II-era national socialism with concerns over environmental degradation. This new generation is both an intensification and a departure from its predecessor; not only are organisations less important, so are ideologies. Not only are lone actors now central, but they are frequently their own propaganda arm, with extremists in some ideologies even sharing manifestos and livestreams that feed their ideologies further. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated those trends, supercharging a new brand of conspiracism that relies not on ‘alternative facts’ but on an absence of facts. Women and children play a greater role as part of ‘mass radicalisation’, as does mental health and a range of other vulnerabilities. Almost all violence is now committed by lone actors, employing even more diffuse terrorist targeting, often aimed at accelerating collapse and exhibiting shortened ‘flash-to-bang’ timelines, often contributing to less effective attacks from less professional fighters.

The net result of the third generation’s emergence is unpredictability: there is no telling who will launch the next terrorist attack; against whom; and where, how, and why. Accordingly, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are stretched, dealing not just with a widening array of extremist threats, but also an accelerating number of national security concerns writ large. The story of social media radicalisation, then, is one of diffusion—from centralised to decentralised and from organised to chaotic.

Counterterrorism Efforts

The major question counterterrorism practitioners and law enforcement now need to answer is whether the third generation is a departure from its predecessors or an addition. In other words, are we facing fundamentally different extremists or more numerous extremists? Do previous generations of social media radicals still pose a terrorist threat, or is the danger to communities now defined mostly by this newer variant of extremism? 

Counterterrorism scholars and practitioners will also be burdened with projecting the next developments on the horizon. There is a perennial problem in counterterrorism studies: typically, by the time we identify a trend and propose countermeasures, that trend has already largely subsided, replaced by a newer threat profile. The third generation proposed here may, indeed, already have been eclipsed by a fourth—defined by technologies that have not yet presented themselves in the public eye, or that are too novel to be truly appreciated. What comes next? What is the next MMI to bless extremists with new tools with which to target civilians? These questions are of critical importance to counterterrorism and our future ability to protect communities from extremist violence.

The analysis bears crucial implications for the tech companies on the frontlines of this new counterterrorism environment, precisely by revealing the importance of greater oversight of social media companies. Social media has allowed terrorists to circumvent government altogether, and the tech behemoths that host such platforms have not filled the counterterrorism vacuum. The private sector’s inertia has now led to debates over the future of Section 230—which offers platforms immunity from legal responsibility over content on their sites—as well as two Supreme Court cases on the issue. These developments underscore an important reality: that tech companies have failed in their duty to keep their platforms safe for users, and must now be regulated with more aggression by governments and policymakers. Mass radicalisation on social media companies needs to be stopped, and deterring new generations of extremists radicalised online will accordingly require a more active regulatory framework.

Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he studies far-right terrorism and countering violent extremism, as well as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is the co-author of God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America, forthcoming with Columbia University Press.