From Mainstream to Extreme: The Transmission of Harmful Messaging Online

Introduction

In today’s digital age, online spaces have transformed the way in which people communicate. The internet has been a sort of breeding ground for radicalization, often fostering echo chambers and hosting fringe communities. Exploring the dynamics of these virtual environments, this blog piece explores themes surrounding extremist messaging, information dissemination, and online spaces through speaking with Anna George, a scholar at the University of Oxford specialising in online political behaviours. We speak about fostering digital resilience in an era of misinformation    and disinformation and how online spaces can be both a place for mobilizing and minimizing extremism.

During my time at the DRIVE project, I was able to overlook the myriad way polarisation and existence on the fringes can drive exclusion and extremist views. How and why are people increasingly disenchanted with the world around them? How can online spaces specifically provide solace or further divide us?

Background and context

I had the opportunity to speak with and interview Anna George, a Social Data Science  scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute researching  online political behaviours and computational approaches to studying online harms. As she finalises her doctorate, her research has largely focused on the transmission of harmful messaging, online communities, alternative news, and extremist sentiments. Her ambitions rest on making the internet a safer space.

Mainstream social media and alternative spaces

We delved deep into our discussion, examining trends in low-quality news sources, the framing of COVID-19, the Ukraine war, climate change, and migration in extremist online spaces. What Anna’s research has been noticing is that as movements become more mainstream, they are more likely to mobilise offline. Online spaces allow people to meet other like-minded people. This can be as innocent as joining your local knitting club; however, due to the vast nature of the internet, it can quickly become more sinister. Extremist people and organisations both exploit and use the ease of the internet to broaden cross-sections of individuals who might share common views, facilitating radicalization or providing communities where extremist sentiments can be freely shared.  While individuals associated with extremist ideologies use and interact with virtual spaces for several reasons, such as the community and feeling of inclusion, Anna points out examples of when groups and lone actors can mobilise and move offline. With examples such as the attack in Charleston, USA, the Capitol Insurrection, and even her local environment of Oxford climate change conspiracy networks, we can analyse groups that used to be sparse becoming to morph together. Anna marks QAnon as a landmark turning point for rallying conspiratorial groups together, representing a conspiracist milieu lying adjacent to other extremist beliefs capable of violent goals, such  as the New World Order or the Great Replacement theories within white supremacist spaces. However, what is pointed out throughout our interview is the need to emphasise not only the capabilities of violence but also the detrimental effects of the dissemination of online disinformation through diverse supporters. What we can observe is the potentiality of conspiracy theories “going mainstream” through creating subcultures, boosting alternative media, persuading the masses, and proxy wars, all of which have political effects. 

Conspiracy narratives: trust, COVID-19, and anti-institutional extremism

As we continue our discussion, we land on a central insight in researching online spaces and why people are increasingly turning to extremist spaces: trust. Over the past 50 years or so, public trust in institutions and the news media has collapsed. The consumption, distribution, and production of news have altered thanks to the digital era and social media. This isn’t necessarily a phenomenon touching solely conspiratorial people; a lot of people are starting to lose trust in democratic governments. Anna emphasises this as a major gateway into foreign state entities playing into these claims, as at the core of extremist ideals, there is the perception that you can’t fully trust the government.  We discuss the effects that misinformation online has on undermining public trust. Anna continues in saying “it is political, because the topics that are discussed are political issues: lockdown, climate change,” stating the US to be the best example of this, while the trend is beginning to increase in the UK political sphere. The effects of this point to the weaponisation of topics.The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a feeling of alienation and mistrust in institutions. The uncertainty around COVID brought a lot of  questioning and fear, with corresponding measures taken by governments heightening anti-government  action in Europe. Low-quality news outlets and fringe movements used over-reporting on issues like vaccine hesitancy to spread anti-institutional sentiments, much of which spilled over onto mainstream social media. This environment was one that conspiracies could thrive in, as Anna points out that trends in conspiracies increase with uncertainty.  This provided an opportunity for extremist groups to spread disinformation, gaining exposure and recruitment benefits.

Accountability and Policy Initiatives: Turning Points and Lessons Learned

The topic delves into the incentives and stakes that actors and governments have in information sharing and online spaces. Anna contends that there remains a lot of confusion around this landscape and that the issue of online safety and its effects on the rise of domestic terrorism is a paramount policy avenue. We must continue to fund and research the impact of these movements, as well as the reasons why mistrust in governments and institutions is on the rise as extremist movements, populist movements, and foreign state media benefit from these narratives. She continues, calling for a multipronged approach among governments, social media companies, and civil society, drawing engagement from an educational standpoint in order to teach young people, in particular, the importance of online literacy and critical thought. In her own work, Anna performed a systematic review of computational approaches, offering methods and techniques social media companies can utilise in combating misinformation and disinformation. Interventions such as content-labelling (as true or false, trustworthy) or fact-checking videos can prime users into questioning the accuracy of content in order for people to discern for themselves the validity of sources. The UK government's Online  Safety Act (2023) is a great example of a government’s novel approach to enforcing measures to improve online  safety and the duties of internet platforms in managing harmful or illegal content.

Closing thoughts

While we covered a wide range of topics during our meeting, it is without a doubt an area of research that academics such as Anna George should push towards creating safer online and critical spaces. Topics of mistrust and disinformation regarding online spaces can aid us in gaining insight into the role of social exclusion and emotions regarding why individuals are attracted to these movements or exploited or recruited into movements through intersections of beliefs; perceptions are powerful. 

The first author of this piece is Jacob Astley, an Honorary Research Assistant at the University of Liverpool

Shortly before 11am on Sunday 14th November 2021, a day intended to be one of peaceful reflection and remembrance, ended before commemorations could begin in Liverpool, when a homemade bomb was exploded inside a taxi outside the Liverpool Women’s hospital. Since declared an act of terrorism by the UK Government and counter-terrorism police, the owner of the taxi in which the bomb exploded, David Perry, has been hailed as a hero for his incredible presence of mind and bravery in preventing further deaths in what could have been a disaster of much greater scale and consequences.

The suspected perpetrator - who died at the scene - has been named as 32-year-old, Emad al-Swealmeen, an asylum seeker whose claims for permanent residency status in the UK had previously been rejected. In a speech to an audience of journalists, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, commented that the attack in Liverpool was connected to the inadequate system for claiming asylum.

The case in Liverpool was a complete reflection of how dysfunctional, how broken, the system has been in the past…”.

However, these sentiments have been criticised by those countering that the ruling Conservative Government has had over a decade in power to address perceived difficulties with the asylum process. Notwithstanding what might be considered as distasteful political opportunism, the Home Secretary’s response has led to questions surrounding the preparedness of the UK Government to tackle the causes of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism, and the possibilities for the prevention of such attacks.

After calling for a national emergency meeting of COBRA, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, alongside the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre made the decision - announced by Home Secretary, Priti Patel - to raise the terror threat level to ‘severe’. Crucially there are five levels ranging from ‘low’ to ‘critical’ indicating the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the UK.

This is the third act of single actor domestic terrorism in as many months - the Liverpool explosion, the murder of Sir David Amess MP and the Plymouth shootings. Though not officially classified as an act of terrorism, the motives of the Plymouth perpetrator can be perceived as having terroristic intent (extreme ideas and values which were acted upon to cause harm). All of these attacks were perpetrated by individuals who appear to be motivated by different values, but all of whom have reported mental health issues. Jake Davison, the alleged perpetrator of the Plymouth attacks was affiliated with an online network calling themselves ‘incels’. Incels are self-identified ‘involuntary celibate’ men who espouse sexist ideology and openly advocate misogynistic violence; the connections between these attitudes, terrorism and violence against women are being increasingly recognised in academic research (see, McCulloch et al. 2019; and Smith 2019). Sir David Amess was murdered whilst holding a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The attacker, a 25-year-old British citizen, Ali Harbi Ali was thought to have been partially driven by religious and ideological motives. Investigations about Emad al-Swealmeen’s reasons for arriving at a hospital with a bomb are on-going. However, researchers have highlighted commonalities between what may appear, superficially at least, as discrete motivations:

While anti-immigrant, incel, and radical masculinist groups subscribe to different ideologies, one commonality lies in the belief among some of their adherents that violence can lead to recognition of injustice and catalyse socio-political change or else protect and restore a threatened social order” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Taking this observation seriously requires that attention be directed towards media reports which suggest that Emad al-Swealmeen had intermittent mental health problems. Parallel attention might also be afforded to the Plymouth shooter, Jake Davison, who was in contact with a mental health helpline during the eighteen months prior to his attack. Simplistic causal associations between terroristic acts of violence and an individual’s mental health should be avoided, but the proliferation of single actor attacks in the UK and elsewhere indicates that mental health issues are a factor in such incidents that require further attention.

The process of radicalisation to violence is influenced by individual and social psychological processes both in local communities and larger networks. Current psychological theories emphasize the confluence of factors involving needs (individual vulnerability and motivation, which may include personality traits, developmental crises, and threats to identity), narratives (ideological justifications of violence, ways of framing situations of injustice and appropriate courses of action, and of dehumanizing the other) and networks (processes of communicating, establishing and amplifying group belonging as well as alienation and marginalization)” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Raising the UK terrorist threat level to ‘severe’ suggests, in metric terms, that an attack is perceived to be ‘highly likely’. Clearly single actor terrorist attacks constitute a significant security risk in this regard. However, the relationship between acts of terrorism and the process of raising the national threat level remains oblique. A substantive body of criminological research evidence illustrates that the causes of terroristic acts are complex and motivated by several factors which may simultaneously include, but also move beyond mental ill-health as a contributory factor. We are members of the EU funded DRIVE European research project. The project seeks to explore the relationship between radicalisation and material and spatial dynamics (social, economic and cultural exclusion); intergenerational change; identity politics; reciprocal radicalidsation (the extent to which opposing groups become more extreme in response to one another) and mental health in Northern Europe, to comprehensively inform future terrorism prevention policies and strategies across the EU and beyond.  

Hardening the political focus on the deleterious actions of individuals with serious mental health issues and drawing public attention to problematic aspects of the UK asylum system are not unfounded nor unwarranted exercises. However, in this context - and in the aftermath of such a tragic incident - ignoring the complexity of motivations influencing those who perpetrate terroristic acts of violence would be a mistake. It is unlikely that raising the national UK terrorist threat level will address the drivers and motivations that result in acts of extreme violence. This raises a range of unanswered questions that policy makers and researchers need to address, preferably together, with urgency.

Have the UK Government ‘acted’ in order to be seen to be responding to single actor attacks?

How effective has the UK Government’s counter-radicalisation strategy been in identifying individuals at risk and preventing terrorism?

What are the implications of recent attacks in the UK in terms of joining up safeguarding policies, procedures and responses to mitigate against such attacks occurring in future?

The gaps in our understanding of these vital issues is marked and there is much to do to address the void.

*This has been reproduced with the kind permission of The University of Liverpool, The Liverpool View

This third interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Laura Zahra McDonald, who is a founding director of ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation.

"The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested."

Within the DRIVE project, you represent ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation. Can you tell us more about your role within the DRIVE and what perspectives you seek to bring to the project?

We are one of two civil society organisations on the DRIVE project, so we bring a different perspective or set of skills and understanding, with a focus on practice and the practical. We are very interested in ways to harness knowledge from research and academia in an applied way, so being part of the DRIVE project is exciting and important to us. So, our involvement works both ways as we are learning new things that will contribute to our own evidence-based practice and learning frameworks. We hope we can bring our experiences of working in the field with young people, communities and practitioners to help contribute to the research and its interpretation, especially helping to contextualise information within social spaces, both on and offline, and contribute to the project outcomes.

Why is it crucial to implement a multifaceted and “whole-of-society approach”, with an emphasis on community partnership with young people when tackling radicalisation?

The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested. Over decades, internationally, we have seen top-down approaches fail, which in many cases have also violated human rights, rendering such attempts both ethically bankrupt and usually ineffective. This is a double failure and has created long-term exacerbation of the issues, and a highly politicised, hostile backdrop to tackling violent radicalisation. These issues are complex and intersectional and require partnership work to tackle them, within an explicit human rights framework. Co-creating knowledge and practice from the grassroots up, with inclusivity, is crucial to effective, impactful and sustainable work that has the credibility and nuance required. The DRIVE project is taking these issues into account, working across communities within and between the country partners involved, to glean knowledge from a whole spectrum of people and perspectives.

In what ways can we bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the P/CVE?

There can be a perception of hostility between academics and practitioners, in which the two elements are pitched as antagonistic, one without thought, the other without action. I would argue that academic and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin, required to illuminate, understand, and make a change. By working together as we are in DRIVE, in a collaborative and creative way, we can harness interdisciplinary and multifaceted approaches to tackling the issues at hand. It is fantastic to see CSOs involved more deeply in a large research project but also the diversity of expertise from psychology, public health, sociology, religious studies, politics – a wide and deep range of methods and traditions which enable both theory and practice to gain in ways far deeper than sticking to traditional boundaries and limitations. I am also excited that the end results of the research will be able to inform practice, that is working both ways from start to end.

Your research work related to P/CVE significantly focuses on the gender dimension. Why do you think it is important to bring gender perspective - and a more inclusive approach in general - to enhance our understanding of radicalisation and violent extremism?

Beyond the obvious ethical problem, the exclusion of any group in the understanding of an issue is creating a vacuum or a blind spot. This is especially true for the subject of violence and extremism which has traditionally been mired by problematic approaches to gender, both by violent extremist groups and individuals operating and perpetuating negative gendered frameworks (often misogyny), but also by those of us studying, interpreting and practicing in the arena. The ‘boys with guns’ imagery and interest in a certain perception of masculinity and violence have limited our understanding of gender dynamics in the creation of extremist violence and its prevention. Research has revealed some of the ways intersections of gender and violence operate, for example, the relationship between domestic violence and terrorist violence by perpetrators, and also our wider social contexts in which gender dynamics - cross-culturally - shape the landscape and heighten the likelihood of violence and reduced chances of preventing it. Gender is an absolutely central intersection in understanding the issues at hand, and tackling them effectively, alongside many other factors - social, personal, environmental, and political. Even at a very practical level, for example, engaging young people within a school assembly – the way we talk about the issues, the imagery we use, the vulnerabilities we address, must all be fully inclusive, or we are failing the young people in front of us, and indeed the whole of our societies.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

This second interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Mark Sedgwick, who is the Principle Investigator at Aarhus University.

"Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism."

As a Principal Investigator for the DRIVE Project, what perspectives are you bringing to the project?

I originally trained as a historian, and I think this still has a lot of impact on my perspectives. I like to look at the long term and the big picture. This is one reason why I am so keen on looking at the whole issue of social exclusion, which DRIVE does: it is precisely the sort of big factor that historians like, and that I feel has been missing from much recent work on radicalisation in the West. I also bring perspectives related to my earlier work on Islam, which is the main focus of my research. Radicalisation is absolutely not all about Islam, but Islam does have something important to do with it, and I know Islam from many perspectives, not just its relationship with radicalisation. I have also worked on the history of terrorism, and most recently published a chapter about anti-colonial terrorism in Egypt. I am probably best known for my work on definitional and conceptual issues related to radicalisation, and I think these issues are really important, even though they are also really difficult. Finally, I have worked on the ideology of the radical right, and I recently edited an anthology on this. So, for the DRIVE project, I have perspectives on both sides, so to speak.

In your book Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age (2016), you provide a dense historical examination of the many manifestations of Sufism in Western cultures since the seventeenth century. What is the state of Western Sufism today?

That is a very good question, even though it has very little to do with radicalisation or DRIVE – except, perhaps, to remind us that Muslims in the West do many things that have nothing to do with radicalisation or terrorism. Although I must admit that there was actually a Sufi group in London in the 1970s that was almost as radical as it was possible to be. Nowadays they would probably all have been arrested, but in those days the world was very different, and so far, as we know nobody got at all worried about them. And in fact, they never got anywhere much towards launching the jihad had that they hoped for, and ended up doing high-quality translations of scholarly texts instead. In a way, they ended up fighting “the jihad of the pen”. That is something that is important for Western Sufism today: a lot of work towards explaining Islamic theology in Western languages and in terms that appeal to Westerners is done by Sufis. Sufism in the West started off appealing to non-Muslim Westerners who were engaged in the spiritual search, at a time when there were very, very few Muslims in the West. Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism. So Western Sufism today is doing quite well, and is increasingly Islamic as well as distinctively Western.

Could Sufism be considered as a “positive branding of Islam”, providing a counter-narrative to Salafist-inspired religious extremism?

Certainly, many people see it that way. If the jihadis are the “bad Muslims”, people want to find the “good Muslims”, and Sufis seem to fit that role quite nicely. In fact, though, engagement in Sufism and attitudes towards jihad have very little to do with each other. It is true that most jihadis nowadays are Salafis, and one of the few things that different types of Salafis all agree on is that they disapprove of Sufis, but that is about it. In the nineteenth century, when there were very few Salafis, most jihadis were actually Sufis, and there is nothing about being a Sufi that means that you can’t be a jihadi as well. It is not about theology, but about politics, identity, and social conditions. Among other things! Theology matters, because jihad is an action that is understood to bring religious rewards, but there is no particular disagreement about this. Sufis, Salafis, and nearly everyone else agree that engaging in jihad is a good thing – so long as it is a proper jihad. That is what there is disagreement about, and the question of whether something is a proper jihad or just murder or criminal activity is more of a political question than a theological one.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the upcoming interviews!

Co-authored by Anne-Marie Martindale & Jacob Astley

The recent killings perpetrated by a young man, Jake Davison, in Plymouth in the UK - first of his mother and then of four strangers - have drawn attention once more to an internet organisation calling themselves ‘Incels’. This group of ‘involuntarily celibate’ men - which Davison was believed to be affiliated with - espouse sexist ideology and openly promote misogyny. Incel-related misogynistic driven violence is not a new phenomenon. The recent incident in the UK, however, hastens the need not only to recognise it but, moreover, to address the dangerous reality of Incel culture.

The nascent debate that the Plymouth attack generated was rapidly overshadowed by events in Afghanistan. There, ISIS-Khorosan (ISIS-K) - targeting those trying to flee the country at Kabul airport - killed over 175 people and injured many more, detonating an explosive device at the entrance to the airport. In contrast to the incident in Plymouth, the attack at Kabul airport was immediately ascribed as an act of terrorism by security experts and understood as such in the media and political circles. Although there was some debate about the drivers for the Plymouth perpetrator - most notably stimulated by the comments made by Jonathan Hall, QC, the UK Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism - the attacks in Plymouth were not defined as terroristic.

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations.

Given that - on the surface at least - it would seem that both the violent attacks in Afghanistan and Plymouth were motivated by ingrained values and beliefs that can be defined as ‘extremist’. This raises some interesting questions. Should those inspired to undertake acts of violence by Incel culture be considered terrorists? Indeed, should the Incel network itself be classified as a terrorist organisation?

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations. After all, members of the extreme Incel culture share an ideology, form part of a horizontal global network of individuals with dangerous views and provoke subscribers to undertake indiscriminate violence against women. Yet, with no clear guidelines on what constitutes a terrorist organisation and what does not, Incels continue to slip the net.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.The speed, scope and scale of the internet affords opportunities for those that incite violence and presents sizeable challenges for those trying to prevent it. The evolving nature of the online realm, its widespread accessibility and the possibility of anonymity are factors which Incels - like terrorists - seek to exploit to propagate hate and violence.

The attacks in Plymouth were certainly not the first nor the only act of organised and extreme violence perpetrated by individuals affiliating with this group. Demonstrable connections have been made with similar acts of violence in Canada and the United States in recent years. Yet still, as a group, Incels are not formally recognised as a terrorist organisation. It could be that reluctance to recognise them as such lies in their ideology which is rooted in hatred against women, or indeed psychosocial circumstances that affect young men who may already be socially vulnerable in different ways.

In recent years, criminological researchers have been paying increasing attention to the links to be found between men who abuse women and their tendencies toward political and religiously motivated violence. The work of Joan Smith (2019) is the most recent in a long history of feminist informed work which has made these links explicit. From the intervention of Frances Power Cobbe in 1879 - who labelled wife abuse as torture - to Morgan’s powerful observations in The Demon Lover first published in 1989 and updated post 9/11, 2001, to Elizabeth Stanko’s (1997) analysis of women’s fear of crime as a technology of the soul, alongside the work of Johnson (1995) defining domestic abuse as intimate terrorism, to the work of McCulloch et al (2019) on so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.

Taken together, this work demonstrates the links between misogyny and the lives women live in a culture of fear and intimidation by men; some of which result in death at the hands of those same men, like in Plymouth, where one of the victims was the young man’s mother. To put it simply, neither Incels nor other terrorist organisations - like ISIS-K - assign much value to women’s lives outside of their presence in the world to service and support men, raising the question as to why women’s safety and security is not only muted but routinely ignored.

So when is a terrorist organisation not considered terroristic? Why is an ideology that only targets women and supports indiscriminate hatred and violence against them beyond the reach of terrorism? What might be the resourcing implications of classifying Incels as terrorists? Might bringing this group more squarely under the purview of the security and intelligence service attention result in greater protection for women at risk?

Food for thought indeed for those wanting to understand terrorism and those for whom it has serious consequences. How to prevent those consequences for those subjected to its worst effects should be a priority for researchers, politicians, policy makers and security practitioners.

How is a Horizon 2020 project conducted? Who are the professionals working on DRIVE and which perspectives do they bring to the project? In this series of interviews, you will get to meet the team members of DRIVE and learn more about their areas of expertise and the role they play throughout the course of the project.

This first Meet The Team interview features Prof. Tahir Abbas, the scientific coordinator of DRIVE.

"Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society."

Apart from being the Scientific Coordinator of the DRIVE project, you hold thorough experience and expertise in the field of CT and PVE. What has led you to pursue this path?

I have been looking at issues of violent extremism for two decades. The events of 9/11 spurred me on to try to explore some of these issues in more detail, especially as before this tragic day, several related concerns were going on in the city of Birmingham that made me think twice about what was happening to young Muslims concerning identity, ideas of belonging, and issues to do with the violence that was being forged into a heady mix with significant implications.

I know several colleagues who had got into this field because of some direct and indirect experience related to extremism and radicalisation, whether it was a close friend who was routinely subjected to harassment by the police or somebody they knew at school who found themselves implicated in some plot later in life. People like me, who are born in a country different to that of our parents, are habitually challenged by questions of identity and belonging. Some of us can reconcile these issues while others can see it transformed into something far more problematic. 

Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society. Having spent many years before the events of 9/11 exploring race relations, the understandings I was able to figure out in terms of minority experiences and the implications this had for a sense of engagement and participation is no different from some of the genuine existential problems that young people face when trying to work out their paths in life per se. But a lot of this analysis is a million miles away from the programmatic approach taken by state-centric-led initiatives concerning countering violent extremism that continues to deemphasise the bottom-up, community-oriented issues related to extremism, which are more about social exclusion than anything else.

What, according to you, makes DRIVE special?

The Drive project is a unique opportunity to bring together social scientists and public mental health experts  for the first time to explore some of the most challenging concerns facing societies in northwest Europe today. We understand that there is much that has already been written and expressed concerning questions of extremism, with a lot of it being polemical and often without any empirical support. Ours is a systematic attempt to try to enhance our understanding of radicalisation through exploring the wider issues of social exclusion in northwest Europe in a way that could not have been possible until recently.

Until recently, the far-right, alt-right and incels were not on the radar of policymakers. With a range of counter-competing and in some cases reciprocal radicalisation becoming the norm, the Drive project uniquely allows the project team to explore the synergies between diverse kinds of radicalisation based on an understanding of local area experiences. In this regard, we are interested in identity politics, intergenerational change, the idea of space and belonging associated with it, and the complex generalisable relationship between the extremism put forward by elements of the far right and the extremism put forward by elements of Jihadis because both sets of outcomes are not independent of the same social structural factors. Both sets of groups are looking for something beyond their own experience to buy in to, to believe in, and to support. In some cases, by whatever means necessary.

What are the most acute challenges the youth is facing today that might drive some vulnerable and marginalised individuals to radicalisation?

Having looked at this question for the last twenty years, the most important point is the issue of belonging. Unless young people have a sense of belonging, they do not have a sense of purpose. By not having a sense of purpose, they are easily distracted and persuaded, especially if they are young and impressionable. And then they face issues of being stuck in an echo chamber of negativity that becomes an added risk factor.

It is from these situations that we find the young people making the analytical and conceptual leap from holding frustrated grievances to enacting solutions to their problems through violence. While society considers their acts of violence as the problem, for the young people implicated, their actions are the solution. What compounds a lot of this is the unidirectional thinking on the part of states and supranational bodies which adhere to a top-down agenda based on the idea that the problem is inherited within a particular faith and the ideal would be to get to a vulnerable individual before radicalisation is operationalised from within.

All this does is enhance and legitimise Islamophobia, in the case of Islamist groups, but it also takes attention away from the genuine everyday realities that face so many people who end up with violent extremism as their solution. The need to understanding the social exclusion dynamic in radicalisation studies is to build solutions that are about looking at society, and not distinguishing these radicals as somehow separate us from the rest of us. They are remarkably like the rest of us but different enough to warrant paying further attention to their particular needs and wants.

In your recent book Countering Violent Extremism (2021), you provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent Islamist extremism, which according to you, is largely focused on ideology. What implications and/or unintended outcomes does this have on the marginalized Muslim communities and the wider society?

The main critique I have of the current counter violent extremism paradigm is that it reproduces Islamophobia. All the tension among groups and individuals that somehow have gone wrong are seen as being due to some internal issues that are unresolvable and that these can be defined as being a result of interpretations of religion and practice. From all of the extensive research, practice and practitioner-oriented experiences, we realise that radicalisation is often an outcome based on everyday social processes.

In parts of the global south, we have instances of not just underdevelopment, inequity, and tribalism but also corruption, cronyism, and militarism and in some cases people who end up being radicalised because it is a form of employment. The far right targets unemployed and impressionable young men and offers them employment opportunities. Many who went from various parts of North Africa to what was the Islamic State did so because they were being offered paid employment, something that was difficult to sustain in places like Tunisia especially, after the events of the Arab Spring.

Overall, we need to take attention away from the fact that radicalisation is akin to someone’s faith somehow going wrong and see it more in the round. Rather, that radicalisation is a concept which aims to elaborate on what tips individuals from various stages of being radicalised and that these are much more about wider societal experiences rather than the more wicked end of the problem that policymakers tend to fixate on due to the urgency of what is seen as the problem and the need to provide solutions in quick response.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

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Hannah Bieber and Lily Sannikova, both interns for the Drive project, reflect on key insights

What are the key challenges in researching extremism? How can we better understand the increasing importance of social media? What possible explanations could we find to understand why most perpetrators of violent extremism are men? These are just some of the questions the panellists engaged with during the first online DRIVE workshop.

The DRIVE launch event, a workshop on ‘The Challenges of Researching Extremism Today’ that took place on 22 June 2021 addressed these and other urgent questions in the study of extremism. 130-plus participants tuned in to attend an online panel discussion in which Tahir Abbas, Cathrine ThorleifssonJoel Busher, Jennifer Philippa Eggert, and Chris Allen discussed their own experiences and answered critical inquiries from the audience, moderated by Anouk de Koning. Beyond debating the difficulties encountered by academics when researching this field, the speakers also drew crucial conclusions and implications for the DRIVE project.

There is a need for bridging the offline and online world when researching extremism in the era of the digital age

Cathrine Thorleifsson (University of Oslo) opened the floor by stressing the importance of looking at online spaces, such as forums, gaming platforms and social media when trying to understand radicalisation processes. These spaces create an enabling environment for the virtual community to engage in political mobilisation, prompting young individuals to lean towards extremist patterns. The emotional dimension of online radicalisation also needs to be addressed, as offline grievances seem to translate into the online sphere.

There is, in fact, a gap in our understanding of how the online and offline spheres intertwine when it comes to radicalisation processes. DRIVE will attempt to bridge this gap by investigating both spaces.

“Often we only have discourse analyses of far-right discourses online, but we also need to look at the embodied and affective dimensions of online spaces.”

Cathrine Thorleifsson

Research on political violence should be more gender-inclusive

Jennifer Philippa Eggert (University of Warwick) highlighted the key role of gender in research on political violence and violent extremism. Integrating a gender perspective is pivotal in two ways: first, the research should address how extremist groups instrumentalise gender; second, gender equality should become more integrated into the field of political violence.

According to Eggert, gender plays an important role in shaping the role and directing the actions of extremist groups. It permeates everything extremist groups are and everything they do. The propaganda, recruitment strategies, power structures, and organisation of extremist groups rely heavily on gender stereotypes and gender norms. The DRIVE project seeks to investigate gender dynamics in extremist groups and the role of masculinity, as well as to promote inclusivity and gender equality.

“Sometimes when the researchers want to focus on gender, they end up only looking at women, which is simply not good enough as we cannot understand women alone without looking at men.”

Jennifer Philippa Eggert

Participant observation is a key but very challenging methodology when researching extremism

Joel Busher (Coventry University) and Chris Allen (University of Leicester) both underlined the challenges of researching extremist groups. Busher addressed the difficulty of integrating these groups and the behaviour the researcher must sometimes adopt in order to get access to data. Allen then added that research on specific groups could lead to their stigmatisation by the public but also to a rejection of the researcher’s work by these very groups. The more a researcher’s work is published and known, the more defiant respondents can be, which can make participant observation an arduous task.

Both speakers mentioned the personal risks that the researchers are exposed to when doing participant observation: they can be perceived as biased, or suffer from online harassment. Nevertheless, they also reminded the audience that there are safe ways of conducting participant observation in extremist groups - for instance by researching emerging groups rather than well-established ones. Despite the risks, this method is of great epistemological importance, as it enables researchers to capture the affective and emotional dimensions of extremism. As DRIVE will resort to participant observation and interviews, a clear ethical framework has been established in order to protect the respondents, communities, and researchers.

The position of the researcher needs to be reflected upon

For Joel Busher, a self-reflection on the researcher’s position when researching extremism is necessary. Researchers indeed hold responsibilities towards the participants, communities, and wider society. Chris Allen briefly stressed that researchers do not only face risks when conducting fieldwork, but also when their research gains attention through the media, social media, or university websites.

All panellists acknowledged the need for self-reflection and self-criticism when researching the field of political violence and extremism, both on an individual and structural level. Finally, Busher pointed out how uncomfortable one may feel when confronted with extremist comments and the difficulty to balance the need for gathering data and this discomfort. This affective and moral dimension of researching such a sensitive field also needs to be accounted for.

“There is a responsibility towards wider society: how do we give importance to what we’re doing without actually inflating narratives of risks and potentially driving fear and polarization.”

Joel Busher

After the panellists’ presentations, the audience was able to interact with them in a Q&A moderated by Anouk de Koning, who animated the discussion by sharing her insights as an anthropologist. For instance, she pointed out the importance of making academia more diverse to prevent stigmatisation of certain groups and interrogated the role race plays in counter-extremism and counter-terrorism research.

Overall, this first online event paved the way for fruitful discussions and worthwhile reflections on the challenges of researching extremism today that will be crucial throughout the DRIVE project. As pointed out by Tahir Abbas, this research will maintain a critical and grounded perspective because it seeks to challenge the dominant understanding on the way we think about radicalisation.


Did you miss our launch event? Rewatch it here!

Far right and Islamist politics are mutually dependent in the shared displacement of 'the Muslim'

For some time now, I have been trying to make sense of the process by which a particular representation of the figure of ‘the Muslim’ is intrinsically entangled in Islamist and far right politics.[1] The prevalence of the Muslim ‘other’ in legitimising their identity is known from studies on far right politics. In Islamist politics, 'the Muslim' is central in the legitimising the establishment of a Muslim homeland - the caliphate.[2] What dominant research and policy tends to overlook, however, is how far right and Islamist politics connect beyond language and action.

In other words, research is generally occupied with the political discourse and performances of certain groups and parties without giving sufficient focus to the actual workings of identification. One way to perceive mutuality in more detail is to shift attention from the study of identity to the study of identification. In the study of identity, politics is understood as the formulation of, and interaction between, fixed identities. As an alternative, the study of identification acknowledges that political identities are always relational and co-constituted. In the context of identity politics and extremism, the relational aspect is important because it provides insight into the legitimation, or normalisation of radical political demands.

As researchers, community practitioners and policy-makers, I suggest we take into account the deeper, undisclosed, connection between far right and Islamist politics. In focusing solely on plain language and actions, we risk missing important factors related to the dynamics of political identification. We have to allow for inconsistencies and contradictions, some of which are ingrained in the concepts we use as observers ourselves. In the case of far right and Islamist politics, there is a contradictory alliance between seemingly opposing identities.

One such radical demand is the construction of a state governed by Islamic laws and principles - the caliphate. Rather than arguing such a demand is an Islamist demand only, the caliphate is co-constructed by both Islamist and far right politics. Perceiving mutuality beyond mere interaction between Islamist and far right politics reveals such underlying paradoxes. The far right would never explicitly demand the establishment of the caliphate as the solution to the ‘out of placeness’ of Muslims.

And from what we might conclude from the analysis of Islamist groups such as Daesh, not every form of Islamist politics actively pursues the establishment of the caliphate. The caliphate is rather an imaginative tool - a utopia/dystopia - that functions to legitimise the displacement of Muslims. The possibility of the caliphate is important for the emotive appeal to the discourse of the far right and Islamists. The politics of Daesh, for example, is not necessarily in favour to other Islamist groups that aim to mobilise the Muslim community (the ummah) on the grounds of displacement.

In the context of identity politics and extremism, the relational aspect is important because it provides insight into the legitimation, or normalisation of radical political demands.

The legitimacy of the caliphate, both in far right and Islamist politics, is dependent on the construction of ‘the Muslim’ as one particular - homogeneous - way of being Muslim. ‘The Muslim’ in the politics of the far right is a ‘out of place’, or displaced, figure deprived of a homeland. For the far right, there is no place for ‘the Muslim’ beyond the structure of the caliphate. The only way of being Muslim is to abide by the all-encompassing way of life, or ideology, of Islam. Hence the reasoning that ‘the Muslim’ is irreconciable with secular and liberal culture.

And because there is only one way of being authentically Muslim, the far right ultimately deny the possibility of so-called progressive or liberal Islam. Similarly, the ‘out of placeness’ of ‘the Muslim’ is pivotal to the legitimacy of Islamist politics. Their displacement is an inevitable outcome of the dominant culture and politics of assimilation of the West. The structural eradication of Muslims can only be reversed through the establishment of the caliphate - the place of origin of the ummah.

To merely conceive them as polarised identities overlooks the symbiosis, or mutuality, of such a construction. After all, far right and Islamist politics aim to construct a frontier between ‘the Muslim’ and ‘the secular’. Yet, beyond the frontier there exists a mutual relationship that is paramount to the longevity of both forms of (extremist) politics. And although such a relationship has recently been captured in concepts such as ‘cumulative extremism’ and ‘reciprocal radicalisation’, I propose we need to go beyond the binary to perceive the so-called third position.

The third position refers to the context far right and Islamist extremism are subjected to and, through their mutual practice, aim to change. While generally understood as the outcome of far right politics alone, the ‘mainstreaming’ of the political right is a result of the interaction between oppositions. Without the lens of complexity, it is easy to attribute such mainstreaming entirely to the far right.

However, by taking into account the relational dynamics embedded in the optimal functioning of the far right, the critical role of Islamist politics in the mainstreaming of the political right is rendered visible. The third position is the synthesis - the coming together - of far right and Islamist politics. It is a particular perspective that privileges perceiving relations and its very (contingent) implications. Thus, in occupying a third position, context is crucial because the extremist identities we analyse not only derive from it, but also seek to change it.


Notes

[1] Please note I acknowledge recent discussions on the ambiguity of these categories. In speaking of far right and Islamist politics here, I refer to the variant that is overdetermined populist in articulation and identification.

[2] The Muslim in Islamist politics encapsulated both the Muslim ‘self’ as the authentic subject, and the Muslim ‘other’ as the corrupted subject (e.g. the progressive or liberal Muslim).

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