Updated: Jun 6
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. 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.
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.
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. 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 , rhetorical strategies and visual appeals , 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.
The changing nature of online activities among extremists also needs to be taken into consideration. In the case of Daesh, we have seen an acceleration of technological adaptation and experimentation among its supporters online in comparison to only a few years ago as well as in regard to rivalry groups. Not only has much of the communication practices migrated to encrypted platforms but there are indications of a growing independence of the ‘virtual caliphate’. Supporters have gone from predominantly consuming and relaying official propaganda to actively producing own material, interacting and collaborating, forming own media groups and collectives with brands and logotypes – all suggesting an enhancement of the original ‘media mujahideen’  of Daesh, an increased level of engagement with extremist material and network-building in encrypted digital environments.
Through passive observation of extremist channels and forums on primarily encrypted platforms such as Telegram, Hoop, TamTam and RocketChat, the author of this text has, since 2014, obtained a rich set of data on online practices and behaviour of Daesh supporters. This includes conversations between supporters, discussions on how to collaborate, expressions of identity, as well as information about which channels and groups individual accounts are following. In addition, the level of engagement among online supporters also entails producing visual propaganda, posters, photographs, pamphlets and videos aligned with Daesh ideology. The narrative focus of this type of material, as well as in conversations around it, could suggest a certain expression of identity and ideological conviction. But, given that accounts are difficult to verify, the result of this type of work can only be considered to indicate, rather than to prove something.
Hence, when the individual user experience of online radicalisation is more difficult than ever to approach and analyse, it is the responsibility and a necessity for the academic community to develop a new methodological course of actions based on ethical grounds to study in detail online behaviour. Instead of relying on macro and meso studies of content and ideology to discuss a ‘potential’ influence on the individual, the research community should work strategically to adjust and tune up existing methods for observing online behaviour on extremist channels. Given the aforementioned characteristics of current violent jihadist online environments, aspects such as group dynamics, interactions, individual expressions of identity, gender, levels of engagement, co-production of propaganda, formation of ideological and religious discourses need to be taken into account.
Studies on this can never replace first-hand accounts from individual supporters. But the more ethically and methodologically sharp they are, the better they can serve as contributions to come closer to reaching a holistic understanding of the significance of online activities in cognitive and behavioural radicalisation.
Dr Michael Krona is a scholar of media, communication and visual communication at Malmö University, Sweden. He holds a PhD in media and communication studies from Lund University, and has conducted research on Daesh propaganda and online communities since 2014. His digital ethnography and monitoring of the violent jihadist online ecosystem has, among other academic publications, resulted in the book “The Media World of ISIS” (2019), co-edited with Rosemary Pennington. He is frequently hired as commentator for various media outlets, and occasionally as advisor for international organizations in counter-extremism, for instance the Global Coalition Against Daesh.
 See for instance Meleagrou-Hitchens, A., Alexander. A., and Kaderbhai, N. (2017) “The impact of digital communications technology on radicalization and recruitment”, in International Affairs, Vol 93(5), 2017  A recent and useful overview on current research on online extremism and radicalization, is Winter, C., Neumann, P., Melagrou-Hitchens, A., Ranstorp, M., Vidino, L, and Furst, J. (2020). ‘Online Extremism: Research Trends in Internet Activism, Radicalization, and Counter-Strategies, in International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol 14(2)/2020  Della Porta, D. and Lafree, G. (2012). ‘Processes of Radicalization and De-Radicalization’, in International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 6(1)/2012  von Behr, I., Reding, A., Edwards, C., and Gribbon, L. (2013) ’Radicalisation in the digital era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism’, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html.  See for instance Frischlich, L. (2020). ‘#Dark inspiration: Eudaimonic entertainment in extremist Instagram posts’, in New Media & Society, (January 2020), https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819899625;Milton, D., (2016), ‘Communication Breakdown: Unraveling the Islamic State’s Media Efforts’, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, October 2016.https://www.stratcomcoe.org/milton-d-communication-breakdown-unraveling-islamic-states-media-efforts ; Ingram, H. (2015) “The Strategic Logic of Islamic State Information Operations,” in Australian Journal of International Affairs, Volume 69(6); Zelin, A. (2015) “Picture or It Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot of the Islamic State’s Media Output,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 9(4)
 Krona, M. (2020a), ’Visual performativity of violence: Power and Retaliatory Humiliation in Islamic State Beheading Videos 2014-2017’, C. Günther & S. Pfeiffer (eds.) (2020) Jihadi Audiovisuality and its Entanglements, Edinburgh University Press  Winter, C., & Parker, J. (2018). Virtual caliphate rebooted: The Islamic State’s evolving online strategy [Blog post]. https://www.lawfareblog.com/virtual-caliphate-rebooted- islamic-states-evolving-online-strategy  Islamic State migrated much of its communication to Telegram in early 2016 as a result of increased censorship on open social media platforms, plus new need for security and protection and to strengthen group identity rather than reaching global exposure, which was already achieved. See for instance Speckhard, A. (2017). “Telegram: The Mighty Application That ISIS Loves.” International Center for The Study of Violent Extremism, brief report, May 9, 2017  Krona, M (2020b) Revisiting the Ecosystem of Islamic State’s virtual caliphate, GNET Research Insight, https://gnet-research.org/2020/10/21/revisiting-the-ecosystem-of-islamic-states-virtual-caliphate/
 Prucha, N. and Fischer, A. (2014), ‘Eye of the Swarm: The Rise of ISIS and the Media Mujahedeen’, USC CPD blog, July 8, 2014  For an example on the role of encrypted environments, see Shehabat, A., Mitew, T., & Alzoubi, Y. (2017). Encrypted jihad: Investigating the role of Telegram app in lone wolf attacks in the west. Journal of Strategic Security, 10, 27–53