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The Internet and
violent extremism

According to the Office of eSafety Commissioner’s Online Hate Report, approximately 33% of young people reported being exposed to online content promoting terrorism. This is a worrying statistic, and while there is still ongoing debate about the link between exposure to extremist content and acts of violence, it’s important to understand the role extremist content can play in this issue and ways we can protect ourselves and those we care about online.

In 2015, the RAND Corporation conducted interviews with a small group of extremists, convicted terrorists, and senior police in the UK and found evidence to suggest that the Internet acts as an echo chamber, creating more opportunities to be radicalised. However, they also found that in most of these cases, the Internet did not necessarily accelerate the process of radicalisation, and that direct physical contact with someone who advocates for an extremist group played a more significant role in radicalisation. In other words, while the internet facilitated the radicalisation of the interviewees, in most cases it was not the sole driver of the process.

That said, we do know that violent media can play a part in the radicalisation process, and that violent or extremist content is more accessible than ever, so it’s important to understand how this content can lead to dangerous outcomes and how you can protect the people you care about.

 

What is extremist content?

Extremists groups use the Internet for a range of objectives – including creating online communities, developing messaging and managing their “brand”, as well financing their groups. From the perspective of recruitment, online content can include tools used by certain groups for indoctrination and psychological warfare, such as chat rooms, or online propaganda. Content can also include visuals of terrorist acts or distressing footage from conflict zones, aimed at creating support for violent action (sometimes found on the ‘dark web’).

However, there is also a range of less explicit, legal content that aims to influence views and create “buy-in” for extremist causes. This could include ‘funny’ content (cartoons and memes etc.) that dehumanise other groups, “Fake news”, or skewed editorial pieces that use misleading facts and figures to promote extremist viewpoints.

 

How do I know if a person is at risk?

There is no definitive list of things to look out for when you suspect someone you care about might be engaging with extremist content online. You may find that someone is reading articles or viewing videos that promote or encourage a feeling of disgust towards certain groups, or viewing violent videos that aim to create sense of pride in one group, while framing the victims as “the enemy”.  They may be reading content that quotes misleading facts and figures to justify vilifying a certain group of people.

You may notice worrying signs on someone’s social media feed, or they may have directly shared something with you. Even if you have not noticed any specific signs, it’s important that those you care about (particularly young people) feel that they can come to you to seek help in analysing any content they may come across. Be mindful that interest in extremist content may not be the only sign that someone may be heading down a worrying path.

 

What can I do to help?

The best thing you can do is listen and support the person you care about, without judgment. Aim to:

  • Create a safe environment where people feel free to talk
  • Ask questions with the aim of understanding why they feel this way and why the content appealed to them in the first place. Do they have an emotional or social health need that is not being addressed? Are they worried about a cause and don’t know how to enact change?
  • Ensure people know that they are in control of what they watch or read. Your goal should not be to stop people from accessing content you don’t approve of – rather to expose people to different sources and perspectives, and encourage them to think critically
  • Present non-violent solutions: Extremist content often promotes violence as the only answer. Don’t discount the fact that there are social injustices in this world, but discuss the issues further, and help demonstrate peaceful pathways for action
  • In very rare cases, you may only find out when it’s too late and someone intends to harm themselves or others. In this case it is important that you report this immediately to emergency services or the National Security Hotline
  • Talk through your concerns with a friend or counsellor, who can advise you on practical ways you can help those you are concerned about.

 

Resources

This blog is a brief summary of a more detailed exploration of this topic by Kosta Lucas (researcher and practitioner specialising in countering violent extremism), which will be featured in an upcoming edition of the Generation Next handbook, to be published mid-2020.  

Educate Against Hate: For schools, parents and teachers.

Vox Pol: Cutting edge research and information about online violent extremism.

esafety young people: Useful information to help you stay safe online.

 

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