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. 

A new special issue in Ethnic and Racial Studies explores how a spatial perspective opens up novel ways to see Islam and Muslims in Europe by focusing on the geographic aspect of religion, discussing sites from Catalonia to Kazan, from halal supermarkets to a Muslim girls’ football team.

Contestations around Islam in Europe often take on specific spatial forms: right-wing groups protest the construction of mosques, legislators restrict the wearing of Islamic face coverings in public buildings, and politicians declare certain geographical areas such as the Parisian banlieues to be the battleground where the future of Europe will be decided.

This shows that the place of Islam in Europe, in both a metaphorical and a material sense, is deeply contested. However, does attention to moral panics around visible Islam in Europe provide us with an adequate understanding of how Muslims move through streets, shops and buildings? How can we understand the complex entanglement of Muslim and non-Muslims in Europe’s built environment, and what does that tell us about the idea of “inclusion”?

The way we identify what counts as “Islamic” or “Muslim”, a person, a place, a building, is deeply shaped by what we think a particular religion should look like. We often think about religious buildings such as mosques, religious dress such as hijab and religion allegedly overstepping the boundaries of its rightful place in the secular political order.

This distribution of attention is prone to neglect forms of being Muslim in Europe that have material effects in other, often unexpected ways. For instance, consider the following picture.

A group of young people gathered at Place du Luxembourg in Brussels.
© Chris Saunder

If you look at the picture, what is your first impression? Does it show Muslims in a way they are usually portrayed in media presentations and political debates? Would the term “Muslim” or “Islam” even come to mind, or is this just a mixed crowd of young people posing for a photo?

A closer look at the picture reveals several surprising layers of meaning at the intersection of Islam, space and Europe, which we discuss in detail in the introduction to the special issue I have written with Adela Taleb and Chris Moses, and which builds on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken by Adela Taleb in her doctoral research.

The picture is taken at the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels. It shows an event organised by the team of Magid Magid, then a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Green Party of England and Wales. Magid, who identifies as a “Black Muslim” was born in Somalia and came to Europe as a child refugee. He employed people from diverse backgrounds as his team to work at the heart of the EU’s institutions in a conscious effort to make EU spaces less “white”, to hire people who “would never [have] had the opportunity to work in the European Parliament either because they were from Africa […] or because they wore a headscarf”.[1] The group assembled to mark the UK’s departure from the EU with a playful “farewell party”, to address their disappointment over the rupture. It included a satirical “marriage game”, where British “refugees” who lose their residence status due to Brexit were able to enter into a sham marriage in order to gain an EU passport.

For a short time, the mini-festival transformed the Place du Luxembourg, a symbolic centre of power of EU institutions, into a space where a Muslim politician challenged the nationalist politics and the lack of minority representation at the heart of European power. A one-day event has a very different time horizon than the construction of a mosque. And yet, through this and other images that went viral via Magid’s prolific social media presence, these temporally short events produce images that travel. They become reused, shared and eternalized in the complex labyrinths of virtual places and digital archives.

While much social media fetishizes novelty and hence espouses a presentist bias, these images also appear against the background of the deep time of this history of Islam in Europe. In contrast to the current trend in migration studies that only focuses on the migration waves of the 1960s and 1970s, the perspective of deep time asks what images, discourses and stereotypes have shaped the way in which the connection between Islam and Europe have been seen throughout the last two millennia, from Islamic mathematics, to Al-Andalus, the Ottoman conquests, slavery, European empires, nation-building and military intervention in the twentieth century, to name but a few.

The way Muslims and their actions are perceived need to be understood in light of centuries of exoticizing discourse, meticulously dissected in Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism. Walking through London, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European capitals reveals the deep imprint that colonial aspirations and atrocities have left on Europe as Adela Taleb shows in her discussion of fabric of “EUrope”. Asking about the relationship between Islam in Europe is therefore not only about questioning the place of Islam, but critically investigating what kind of place “Europe” is. What does it mean that “Islam” has served as Europe’s principal “Other”, for the kind of place or territory it is today, especially if you happen to be European and Muslim? Analysing Islam in Europe through a spatial lens also draws our attention to the selective processes of remembering that follow colonial and racial mechanisms of classification and hierarchization.

This has critical implications for what we understand by “Europe”, but also of what inclusion and exclusion could mean. In a space that celebrates atrocities against Muslim populations in history books, street names and statues remembering heroes of European empires from Morocco to Indonesia, what would it mean for young Muslims to feel included? The criticism voiced against perceiving Muslims primarily through the lens of “integration” has been articulated by some of my interlocutors through the response, “integrate into what”? In the same way, a spatial perspective urges us to ask, “included into what”?

The terminology of inclusion is in itself spatial, it creates an inside and an outside. But what are the criteria for inclusion, and who has participated in creating those? This is not a mere question of a lack of representation, as the political activities of Magid demonstrate. It is also a question of how spaces and communities that are imagined in a way that is culturally and religiously particular, for instance, shaped by Christianity and its imprint on current manifestations of secularism, can accommodate difference.

To begin answering these questions, our special issue suggests, can only be found through careful observations of how people negotiate these spaces and their agency therein. The contributors come from a wide range of academic disciplines and geographic perspectives. Peter McMurray investigates how Shia Ashura processions shape the new soundscapes in the streets of Berlin and Kars. Kathrine von den Bogert investigates the struggles of young Muslim women that challenge the assumptions about who should play football in Dutch public playgrounds, and how the players should look like. Matteo Benussi discusses the emergence of a new halal economy in Russian Tartastan and how they shape the “pietascapes”, taskscapes of pious Muslims.

Mar Griera and Marian Burchardt dissect the bureaucratic hurdles faced by religious groups to stage public events in Barcelona, revealing the racialised and religion-specific interaction orders faced by Muslims in a city that prides itself on its multicultural ethos. Chris Moses digs into the deep history of a central London site where a waqf, an Islamic endowment, is constructed. Ryan Williams allows us insights into the religious-secular and security-related dynamics of a security prison ward in England. Thijl Sunier shows how local charisma and trust in Muslim leaders are crucial in their quest to normalise and institutionalise Muslim life in Dutch cities. My paper discusses how we need to rethink state, space and secularism to understand “local secularisms”, illustrated through the analysis of the failure to construct one of the largest mosques and Islamic centres in Germany. Kim Knott, one of the pioneers of the study of Islam and space, offers insightful reflection on how the special issue addresses key developments in the field and what scholars should now focus on for further study.

Together, the papers sketch how Muslims make space in Europe, shaped by love for their families, passion in their faith, reflexivity of their political judgements or, as most people do, muddling through the complexities of everyday life.

Research on radicalisation, extremism and social exclusion needs to take the nuances offered by a spatial perspective seriously as a matter of analytical exactitude and political urgency. The social and epistemological benefits of this perspective are exciting and will contribute to a debate that can better account for the deep time and complex geographies of religion and politics in Europe.


[1] Interview conducted by Adela Taleb

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