Updated: Feb 7

Candles in red an white at the location of the terror attack in Vienna in Austria on 2 November 2020

The scholarly understanding of extremism, terrorism and radicalisation is constantly developing. With a currently rapid increase of online activities and propaganda dissemination by and connected to terrorist organisations, there is a greater need than ever before to learn more about the role of the internet and online communities in the radicalisation processes.

Social media platforms are tools for propaganda dissemination but also vehicles for formation of group identities among supporters of transnational terrorist organisations. Yet the actual significance of digital and social media in radicalisation is difficult to establish.[1] Simply adding the ‘online’ prefix to radicalisation does not sufficiently explain what this phenomenon actually entails. Currently we are experiencing a rapid transformation of the virtual sphere of contemporary, violent jihadi terrorism which requires a rethinking of the significance of online mechanisms and activities in the radicalisation process. This transformation creates new methodological challenges for advancing the intellectual field and frameworks of knowledge on the topic.[2]

Regardless of which point of departure or perspective one applies to the concept of radicalisation in relation to online activities, key contributions on the topic appear to agree that it takes place at and between three core operational levels. A macro level in which socio-political ideologists are using digital and social media to advocate for support; a meso level where armed militant groups and terrorist organisations are seeking exposure and outreach through sophisticated propaganda; and finally a micro level of the user experience of individuals connecting with likeminded others, forming identities and showing support in various ways to a specific ideology or organisation.[3]

From an empirical point of view, these levels are perhaps most clearly illustrated with the case of Daesh as of 2014. Through the strategic use of digital and social media, a regionally situated organisation could swiftly become a transnational movement with supporters of its ideology around the world (macro level). For almost a decade both distant supporters and the central media wings of the organisation have used multiple digital platforms for engaging likeminded people around the world, scare adversaries with depictions of graphic violence and military operations, inspire so-called lone actors, as well as disseminate a vast variety of propaganda content (meso level). Capitalising on the target audience’s extensive use of mobile applications and platforms in everyday life to connect with others, friends and family, Daesh managed to generate a psychological advantage in enhancing its brand among supporters and thereby its appeal to a wide array of individuals who, in turn, applied the online environment as one factor in cognitive and behavioural radicalisation (micro level).

Much of the academic body of research on online radicalisation has so far been focused on the first two levels and avoided to a large extent the micro level.[4] This is by no means a deliberate neglect, but rather the result of ethical and methodological challenges, combined with new technological prerequisites in terms of encryption of communication among Daesh sympathizers online.

Studying the role and implications of online activities and engagement in individual cognitive and behavioural processes of radicalisation requires access to primary data and interviews with extremists over a long period of time. Due to difficulties of access to individuals as well as ethical concerns, this approach is a challenge to apply, which without a doubt has resulted in a still undeveloped field of empirical research on the micro level of online radicalisation. Macro and meso studies on content and propaganda messaging [5], rhetorical strategies and visual appeals [6], are valuable in regard to understanding how the sender of a message appeal to its audience. These studies can, at best, provide indications of the potential influence on the individual user, however, never generate valid conclusions on the individual’s actual online user experience.