Social media extremism can be “asymptomatic”

A large scale European study of current right-wing and Islamist extremism on Twitter shows that many online contributions fall under the radar of law enforcement or social media’s own standards to remove hateful content from their platforms. To address these challenges, effective policies should aim to balance inclusiveness and prevention of extremist acts.

At a time when world news headlines are dominated by Covid-19, we must not forget that for the past decade, we have been plagued by another fast-spreading and often deadly epidemic: the circulation of socially corrosive, extremist language via social media.

This type of social media communication has helped ISIS to establish its reputation as a significant actor able to mobilise tens of thousands of young Muslims to travel to Syria, join ISIS, sympathise with its cause or act on its behalf. We have also observed the rise of online right-wing extremist rhetoric conveying a message of racial superiority, delegitimisation of democratic institutions, and intolerance. Significant hate and terrorism related incidents have been linked to prior social media use.

The need to refine policies to counter online extremism

The global effort to counteract the ongoing ISIS social media offensive and provide a swift response to terrorist attacks such as that in Christchurch in New Zealand, have focused on curbing online hate speech and radical messaging. Many of these measures pertain to the crackdown of incitement to hatred and violence. Indeed, the EU has put measures in place to respond to online propagation of hatred and incitement to violence.

With the commitment of social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook, this has led to a considerable reduction of explicit extremist content on the internet. But it has not necessarily eradicated the problem. Extremists have found new digital environments and new ways to spread their hateful messages; messages that were initially shared via Twitter or Facebook can be seen now on Telegram or in discussion fora such as 8Chan. And communication that remains on popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is less explicit and can be considered, to borrow a contemporary term, asymptomatic – it is social media discourse that fails to qualify for prosecution by law enforcement or removal by social media companies but promotes intolerance, polarisation and, potentially, inspires certain individuals to engage in extremist acts.

DARE identifies extremism under the radar of law enforcement and social media standards

In an effort to understand contemporary radical social media discourse, a group of researchers from the EU funded project Dialogue about Radicalisation and Equality (DARE) have conducted extensive analysis of what was labelled ‘right-wing extremist’ and ‘Islamist extremist’ discourse on Twitter in the timeframe from 2010 to 2019. The research concerned samples from Greece, France, Norway, The Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Belgium. Twitter accounts in the sample where included on the basis of characteristics such as militarism, support for violence, conspiracy thinking, anti-system attitudes, among other characteristics. [[A full description of the selection criteria can be found in the general introduction section of the project.]] For the selection of right-wing extremist accounts, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration attitudes were also considered criteria. For the Islamist extremists, we also considered the propagation of fundamentalist views.

Across the European countries under consideration, the existence of online extremism was registered, although it had a limited and varied set of characteristics and remained under the radar of law enforcement or social media standards. In particular, the research found:

Persistent negativity. One particularly salient characteristic of the online Twitter debates was an apparent generalized negative attitude. Regardless of the issue discussed, the accounts in the sample were far more likely to be against something than for something. This tendency is more salient among the right-wing extremist than the Islamist extremist accounts. The Islamist extremist accounts discuss Western political matters and Western involvement in the Middle East negatively but also talk about religious affairs and the Muslim community in a positive manner. For the right-wing extremist accounts, the negativity not only pertains to immigration or Islam, it extends to a wide range of issues in national and European politics.

Excessive focus on threats and injustices. Regardless of the sample (right-wing extremist or Islamist extremist) we observed an excessive focus on threats and injustices, which are described as structural rather than incidental. For the right-wing extremist sample, these threats pertain to immigration, ‘Islamisation’, and the gradual devaluation and disappearance of national culture and identity. This leads to an obsession with crimes committed by immigrants, and for Jihadist terrorist attacks. In Islamist extremists’ discourse, we note an obsession with discrimination and injustice committed against Muslims in European countries and around the world. In both right-wing and Islamist extremist discourse, the often graphic depictions of such grievances is used to suggest that collective identity is under threat.

Perception of the state, education system and media as a single entity that contributes to or fails to address the threats. A pervasive theme in the Twitter debates concerns the perception that the state is unable to effectively deal with the threats mentioned above. The right-wing extremist sample attributes this inability to the dilution of national political authority as a result of participation in the EU, and to political correctness in media and education that are perceived to blindly promote equality regardless of differences. This appears as a concerted effort by left-wing politicians, the mainstream media, and the education system to cover the true extent of the threat posed by immigration and Islam. The Islamist extremist samples emphasise double standards that imply that Muslims are judged more harshly and excluded from opportunities, despite claims that they enjoy equal rights.

National history, culture or religion as a basis for a new societal order. Among the right-wing extremist samples, we find reference to historical national heroes and to images of a glorious national or European past. A key element in these references is the perceived (sometimes racial) purity that existed and is currently threatened by immigration and ‘Islamisation’. Among the Islamist extremist samples, we find reference to religious scriptures (most notably the Qu’ran) and the actors involved in it, to serve as guidance for a ‘pure’ lifestyle in a chaotic and unjust world.

Mockery. This alternative worldview is wrapped in a negative stance and mocking attitude towards representatives of the current ruling class. Representatives of this ruling class, most notably political leaders, judges, and media figures, are derided via caricature and hate speech. Among the right-wing extremist sample, this derogatory portrayal also includes immigrants and Muslims. For the Islamist extremist sample, there are most notably references to politicians and judges who are perceived as particularly instrumental in applying the perceived double standards.

A growing concern? Trends over time and strength of networks

Across the European online cultures investigated, the right-wing extremist discourse was found to be growing: activity significantly increased over the timeframe studied. For the Islamist extremists, the activity was observed to be scattered across the past decade, with limited signs of recent growth in activity. For the right-wing extremists, there appears to be a relatively small number of highly visible international political leaders that have a considerable impact on the debates (as reflected in the number of likes and mentions), most notably Trump, but also Bolsonaro, Salvini, and Farage. For the Islamist extremist samples, the research failed to identify particularly strong external influencers.

For the right-wing extremist sample, across countries, the research consistently observed close knit networks with contributors frequently sharing information and liking or retweeting each other’s messages. In this regard, one can consider the right-wing extremist online world on Twitter a ‘milieu’. In contrast, the research found limited sharing of information, and liking or retweeting among the Islamist extremist samples. This was observed throughout Europe.

Policy recommendations

To address these challenges, an effective policy should aim to balance inclusiveness and prevention of extremist acts.

The mere broadening of criteria for message banning may be perceived as another effort by the “elite” to silence opposing voices and to hide the truth about threats and injustices committed to the community that the tweeters identify with, and in this sense may fuel rage rather than mitigate extremism. At the same time, although it is clear that the vast majority of people exposed to extremist ideas or even contributing to extreme debates will not engage in illegal acts, the extremist ideas themselves can influence at risk individuals to plan and conduct acts of violent extremism. This in itself should be a reason to be cautious about allowing extremist ideas on online platforms.

1. Improve diagnosis of online extremism

Improve the taxonomy of extremist online social media discourse. At present there is a considerable difference in opinion regarding what constitutes extremist discourse. All too often, the label ‘extremism’ is taken for granted and for many published reports it is unclear what has actually been studied under the heading of ‘extremism’. A policy to address extremism would greatly benefit from a broadly shared taxonomy describing the common characteristics of online extremism and including variations of extremism.

Understand the person behind online extremism. Often, especially with the fleeting communication and anonymity of the online world, the personal dimension of online messaging is ignored. However, ethnographic research conducted within the DARE project alongside this current research shows a quite varied picture of the motivations behind online involvement and the extent to which the online world affects behaviour in the offline world, where extremism can have the most dramatic impact. It is vital to take this variation into account for a profound discussion on the subject.

Identify characteristics of individuals at risk of transitioning to extremism following online involvement. Given variations in how the online world impacts the offline world, and the risk of backlash to removal of online content, it is imperative to adopt a targeted approach to counter extremism that focuses not only on the content, but also on its impact on individuals at risk of being radicalised.

2. Promote dialogue rather than counte-rnarratives or removal of content

Consider feedback as an alternative to banning. At present, online social media content is either allowed or prohibited. However, there may be in-between options, for instance by providing feedback to the user, without immediately imposing bans. This might be achieved by social media platforms sharing sentiment scores with accounts indicating the extent to which they deviate from a platform’s user community rules and regulations.

Perceptions of threat imply anxiety. There are more effective ways to deal with fear than denial. Research on anxiety management warns against denial as a response, suggesting that a crackdown on extremist content may not be effective.

Promote accountability to mitigate the ‘blame game’. Restrictive measures to curb online extremism are perceived as another indication that the state and its representatives (including the media) are failing in their policies. To address this “blame game”, promoting accountability may prove a more effective strategy. At present, online social media provide the optimal conditions to escape accountability (e.g. contributors can be anonymous, have multiple accounts, are not required to provide personal information).

Take alternative visions seriously, if only for their consequences. An overused sociological axiom states that whatever is perceived to be true can have real consequences. In an effort to counter online extremism, a direct denial or devaluation of opinion as fake news or conspiracy may produce counterproductive effects. Dialogue that includes a genuine engagement with, and critique of, visions espoused by extremists, may be most effective in the long run.

Consider use of educational toolkits. Awareness, courage, accountability, and empathy, i.e. the skills required to promote moderation, need to be acquired through training. The use of educational toolkits can contribute to this.

3. Experiment with diversity

Promote online contact between diverging views. The DARE research uncovered for the tendency of online contributors to coalesce with like-minded others, culminating in mutual reinforcement and strengthening of initial positions, thus creating a ‘filter bubble’. Although many initiatives show how bringing together different viewpoints can have constructive effects in the real world, online initiatives attempting to do the same are currently lagging.

Mark Dechesne is Associate Professor in the Faculty Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University. These policy recommendations are developed from research he conducted for the DARE project (Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality) which received funding from the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme.


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