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The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-Wing Extremists

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Abstract and Figures

While a growing body of evidence suggests that the Internet is a key facilitator of violent extremism, research in this area has rarely incorporated former extremists’ experiences with the Internet when they were involved in violent extremism. To address this gap, in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists who were involved in violent racist skinhead groups, with interview questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement officials and 10 community activists. Participants were asked about their use of the Internet and the connection between their on- and offline worlds during their involvement in the violent right-wing extremist movement. Overall, our study findings highlight the interplay between the Internet and violent extremism as well as the interactions between the on- and offline worlds of violent extremists. We conclude with a discussion of study limitations and avenues for future research.
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The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-
Wing Extremists
Tiana Gaudette
School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
gaudette.tiana@gmail.com
Ryan Scrivens
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan, USA
Vivek Venkatesh
UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism
Project SOMEONE, Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Funding Details
This work was supported by Public Safety Canada under the Community Resilience Fund [8000-
18863] and Concordia University’s Horizon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.
Disclosure Statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism: Insights from Former Right-
Wing Extremists
Abstract:
While a growing body of evidence suggests that the Internet is a key facilitator of violent
extremism, research in this area has rarely incorporated former extremists’ experiences with the
Internet when they were involved in violent extremism. To address this gap, in-depth interviews
were conducted with 10 Canadian former right-wing extremists who were involved in violent
racist skinhead groups, with interview questions provided by 30 Canadian law enforcement
officials and 10 community activists. Participants were asked about their use of the Internet and
the connection between their on- and offline worlds during their involvement in the violent right-
wing extremist movement. Overall, our study findings highlight the interplay between the
Internet and violent extremism as well as the interactions between the on- and offline worlds of
violent extremists. We conclude with a discussion of study limitations and avenues for future
research.
Purpose
In the past five years, it has become increasingly common for practitioners and policymakers in
the Western world to draw from the insights of former extremists to generate knowledge on –
and respond to – the prevalence and contours of extremism and terrorism.
1
While some
researchers and practitioners have raised concerns about including formers in this space, ranging
from discussions about their reliability and credibility to questions about whether their inclusion
could raise concerns in the public sphere,
2
others have argued that formers can provide valuable
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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insight into issues that terrorism scholars, amongst many others, are concerned with.
3
To
illustrate, researchers have shown a growing interest in drawing from the voices of former
extremists to address key questions in terrorism and extremism studies, including empirical
studies focusing on processes of radicalization to extremism,
4
processes of deradicalization and
disengagement from extremism,
5
or both pathways in and out of extremism.
6
Researchers have
also explored various aspects of the above-mentioned processes via the insights of formers,
including the parental influences on radicalization and de-radicalization,
7
the impact of extremist
online content and violent radicalization,
8
factors that minimize radicalization to mass-casualty
violence,
9
the role of formers in preventing terrorism and political violence in post-conflict
communities,
10
the impact of using formers in schools to combat violent extremism,
11
and an
assessment of how former extremists think that extremism should be prevented and countered.
12
Some research is also beginning to emerge that draws from the insights of formers to examine
the experiences of women in groups that advocate racial and political violence.
13
Indeed, formers
have played an increasingly important role in informing empirical research on terrorism and
extremism-related issues.
14
Regardless of the above-mentioned developments, scholars who are working in the field
of violent online political extremism have been much slower to bring formers to the table.
15
This
is in light of the fact that many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers continue to raise
questions about the role of the Internet in facilitating violent extremism.
16
An exhaustive search
using dedicated academic research databases produced only two studies that interviewed former
extremists about their Internet usage when they were involved in extremism. Koehler
17
, for
example, conducted in-depth interviews with German former right-wing extremists, with the
focus of the study on the role of the Internet in individual radicalization processes. The author
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found that the Internet was the most important driving factors in participants’ individual
radicalization processes, as it provided members with a space in which they could learn skills
that were necessary to access online extremist groups. Koehler
18
also found that the Internet was
a central hub for extreme right-wing groups, recruiters, and strategies to influence the radical
views and subsequent behavior of others online. Sieckelinck and colleagues,
19
during their
interviews with 34 former extremists (extreme right and jihadist) in Denmark and the
Netherlands on their life courses into and out of extremism, also highlighted the key catalytic
role of exposure to propaganda online. Following the 9/11 attacks, an individual in their study
decided to search online for information about the war in Afghanistan. Viewing this content, the
participant claimed, was a key push factor within their radicalization process.
Also worth mentioning here are a small number of studies that interviewed current
extremists on their media consumption and radicalization process. Ilardi,
20
for example,
conducted interviews with seven Canadian jihadists and found that, in combination with close
personal relationships with other extremists, the exposure to extremist literature and media was
“decisive in instilling in interviewees the type of beliefs that would lead them to identify with the
world of radical Islam.” Wojcieszak
21
conducted a triangulated study which included content
analyses of white supremacist forums as well as surveys with 182 of these forum users. Analyses
suggested that traces of extremist utterances increased with increased online participation as a
result of both informational and normative influences operating within the sample of online
users. Deliberative and biased processing models predicted that like-minded and dissimilar social
ties both exacerbate extremism. Özeren and colleagues,
22
in their examination of the recruitment
strategies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) via
face-to-face interviews with 42 members, depicted the organizations’ various media outlets,
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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including websites, online radio and television, as key to the organization’s recruitment strategy.
Lastly, Bazex and Mensat
23
conducted in-depth interviews with 12 young French jihadists who
fought in Syria and were, at the time of the study, in custody for terrorist related offenses. The
authors, who also had access to investigation files, noted several individual risk factors including
delinquent behaviors, setbacks in personal loving relationships, school failure, variability in
religious beliefs, and a lack of protective factors. The study also demonstrated that consumption
of radical material on the Internet played a fundamental role in the young jihadists’ decisions to
go to Syria.
While these studies provided valuable insight – both from current or former extremists –
into the Internet’s role in facilitating violent extremism, this area of research remains in its
infancy.
24
In furthering our understanding of the interplay between the Internet and violent
extremism, we conducted a series of in-depth interviews with former right-wing extremists who
were involved in violent racist skinhead groups on their use of the Internet and the connection
between their on- and offline worlds during their involvement in violent extremism.
Current Study
This study represents an original contribution to the academic literature on violent online
political extremism on four fronts. First, the study addresses an important missing data issue that
limits many studies relying on official and open source data to generate knowledge on (1) the
link between the Internet and violent extremism, and (2) the interactions between on- and offline
worlds of violent extremists. Drawing from the voices of individuals formerly involved in violent
extremist groups or movements who have experience with – and insight into – the online
dynamics of violent extremist movements offers a first-hand account of the impact of the
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consumption of, and networking around, violent extremist online content in their uptake of
extremist ideology and/or their decision to engage in violent extremism. This is a critical area of
research that many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers continue to be concerned with.
25
Second, although there has been a surge of research on the intersections of violent extremism and
the Internet, relatively few empirically grounded analyses are yet available. In other words, little
is empirically known about the Internet’s role in the facilitation of violent extremism,
26
and even
less is known about the link between the on- and offline worlds of violent extremists.
27
Third, a
growing body of literature – particularly in the Western world – has sprung up around the project
of drawing from the insights of former extremists in general and former right-wing extremists
and Islamists in particular to generate knowledge on the prevalence and contours of violent
extremism.
28
Scholars in this space, however, have been much slower to ask formers questions
about their Internet usage and activity during their involvement in violent extremism. Fourth, to
date and within a Western context, little research in terrorism and extremism studies has
conducted a needs analysis with law enforcement officials and community activists in
preparation to interview former extremists.
29
Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory study
was to provide an in-depth, descriptive account of former extremists’ use of the Internet and the
connection between their on- and offline worlds during their involvement in violent extremism,
which was based on a series of interview questions provided by law enforcement officials and
community activists. This study, however, does not systematically examine how participants’ use
of the Internet and various online platforms developed or evolved over the course of time that
they were involved in violent extremism.
Methods
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Data Collection and Interview Guide
This study is part of a broader project that draws from the perspectives of former extremists to
develop empirically informed strategies to combat violent extremism.
30
Data collection efforts
for the project consisted of two central components.
First, prior to conducting the interviews with formers, we consulted with key
stakeholders, namely Canadian law enforcement officials and community activists, and they
developed a list of interview questions that they would ask formers and those questions were
incorporated into the interview guide. The purpose of this approach was simple: rather than
developing an interview guide that was derived from an academic perspective only, we included
interview questions from key stakeholders for the purposes of developing a multidimensional,
multi-perspective interview guide.
A convenience sample of 30 law enforcement officials and 10 community activists were
solicited through email communications with a letter of invitation and “word of mouth” tactics.
31
Approximately 550 questions were collected from these stakeholders which ranged from
questions about the identities, roles, goals and activities of former extremists – both before,
during, and after their time in violent extremism – to questions about formers’ experiences with
leaving extremism, to questions about their perceptions of law enforcement and anti-extremists,
their use of the Internet, and how they think stakeholders can combat violent extremism. Given
the sheer volume of interview questions that were accumulated during this process, questions
were categorized and duplicate questions were removed.
32
Here the interview guide consisted of
a combination of 275 open-ended structured and semi-structured questions.
33
Interview
questions, however, did not focus specifically on violent right-wing extremism in Canada in an
effort to have maximum impact within a Western context.
34
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Second, once the interview guide was finalized, the next step was to recruit former
extremists to participate in the study. Initially, we relied on our contacts from our research on
right-wing extremism in Canada
35
to gain access to a few formers. We developed a level of trust
with these formers over a period of time and through several discussions, and they eventually
connected us with other Canadian formers extremists who they believed would participate in the
study. While we acknowledge the facilitation of snowball sampling to reach a wider group of
former extremists, we understand the risk of selection bias which limits the extent to which we
observe diverse points of view.
A total of 10 former right-wing extremists participated in the current study and were
recruited using a snowball sampling technique. Interviews were conducted voluntarily in person
or via telephone or Skype between the months of March and September of 2018. Interviews
ranged from approximately 1.5 hours to 7 hours in length with an average of approximately 4
hours. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, and all names were de-identified for
the purpose of ensuring participant confidentiality. Pseudonyms were used to protect the
identities of individuals and the violent extremist groups they were associated with. But
transcriptions were verbatim, all in an effort to stay true to the voices of each respondent. Edits
were minimal and did not affect participants’ vernacular, use of profanity, or slang.
Sample Characteristics
Included in the current study were eight males and two females, ranging from 27 to 44 years old
with an average age of 38. Each of these participants identified themselves as a ‘former
extremist’, meaning that were individuals who, at one time in their lives, subscribed to and/or
perpetuated violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology and violent extremist group
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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or movement. To illustrate, all ten study participants were actively involved in violent racist
skinhead groups in Canada. Study participants are best described by Simi and Futrell’s
36
conception of racist skinheads, which they defined as:
…the youngest branch of the white power movement. They derive from a distinct youth
subculture, and since the late 1980s racist skinheads have synthesized neo-Nazi ideals
and symbolism. Racist skinheads persist in loosely organized gangs and activist networks
that congregate in skinhead crash pads and white power music gatherings. The largest
organized groups, such as the Hammerskin Nation, produce white power concerts and
festivals and have active cells around the world and an extensive Internet presence.
Furthermore, our sample reflects Perliger’s
37
understanding of racist skinheads, in that the former
racist skinheads in our study tended to be incredibly violent and were amongst the most violent
factions of the Canadian right-wing extremist movement. Seven participants, for example,
discussed a number of instances in which they used violence or the threat of violence in support
of the racist skinhead group’s mission, which ranged from vandalizing mosques to violent
attacks against minorities groups to bombmaking efforts targeting government officials.
Additionally, all study participants described several instances in which spontaneous violence
was part of the daily routine of the group to which they belonged, which ranged from armed
robberies against rival groups to acts of violence against specific minority groups. Together,
these instances of violence align with Bjørgo and Ravndal’s understanding of extreme-right
violence, which they describe as “violent attacks whose target selection is based on extreme-right
beliefs and corresponding enemy categories—immigrants, minorities, political opponents, or
governments [...] [or] vandalism and spontaneous violence.”
38
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Participants’ roles in the violent groups ranged from presidents and sergeants, to
enforcers, musicians, and spokespersons. The majority of the study participants described
themselves as the “upper echelon” of Canada’s racist skinhead movement and approximately
half noted that they were group leaders. Most of the study participants were born in urban or
suburban parts of Canada, but all were involved in group activity in major Canadian urban
centers. While some participants were members of several racist skinhead groups throughout
their involvement in the violent right-wing extremist movement, five of the study participants
were mostly part of one particular group, which was arguably the most conspicuous racist
skinhead group in Canada. Three participants were part another racist skinhead group and two
participants were involved with another group, both of which were amongst the most violent
right-wing extremist groups in Canada.
39
The amount of time that each interviewee was involved in the violent right-wing
extremist movement ranged from approximately 4 years to 22 years with an average of 13 years
in length. On average, their involvement began in 1997 and they disengaged from the movement
in 2009. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the time frame that participants were involved in the
violent right-wing extremist movement.
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Figure 1. Time period that study participants were involved in the violent right-wing extremist
movement.
As ‘former extremists’, the participants have since publicly and/or privately denounced
violence in the name of a particular extremist ideology. In short, they no longer identify
themselves as adherents of a particular violent extremist ideology or are affiliated with an
extremist group or movement. The majority of the interviewees also identified themselves as “off
the grid”, meaning that up until the point that they were being interviewed for the current study,
never did they make it publicly known – either through media or public events – that they, at one
point in their lives, were part of a violent extremist group or movement. Similarly, the majority
of interviewees noted that they had never participated in a research study.
Analysis and Coding Procedure
8
13
4
8
22
5
22
6
22
15
1989 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013
Participant 1
Participant 2
Participant 3
Participant 4
Participant 5
Participant 6
Participant 7
Participant 8
Participant 9
Participant 10
Duration (Years)
Sample
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The results were analyzed via thematic coding, initially utilizing a constructivist grounded theory
approach, which allowed us to draw from existing literature to validate codes.
40
As codes were
later grouped into themes, we specifically focused on perceptions, attitudes, and experiences of
study participants’ use of the Internet during their involvement in violent extremism. Central
emergent themes which composed of respondents describing similar experiences or views were
identified, and less relevant data were omitted (i.e., selective coding). Here we coded and
analyzed the data independently of one another, identifying the themes and patterns with
collaborative agreement, all of which reinforced each emergent theme. The use of multiple
perspectives enhanced the reliability of our observations and our subsequent understanding of
how the Internet was used by former extremists in our sample during their involvement in violent
extremism. The purpose of this strategy was to authenticate our coding and to maximize the
robustness of the results.
41
The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Radicalization
Study participants overwhelmingly suggested that the Internet played an important role in
facilitating their process of radicalization to violence, largely because it provided them with
unfettered access to extreme right-wing content and a network of like-minded individuals, which
in turn increased their exposure to violent extremist ideologies and violent extremist groups.
This, however, was not the case for all participants – two former extremists in the current study
indicated that their use of the Internet during their process of violent radicalization was minimal.
The reasons for this varied between each participant. In one case, the racist skinhead group that
the participant associated with rarely used the Internet during their time in the movement, so the
interviewee’s usage was also minimal. But it is worth noting here that this study participant was
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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active in the movement during a time when the Internet was not as widely used as it was during
the time that most study participants were involved in violent extremism. This most likely
explains why the Internet was not a key factor in facilitating the one participant’s process of
violent radicalization. On the other hand, one participant, although they admitted to browsing
violent extremist forums on occasion or making plans via email with other extreme right
adherents, indicated their use of the Internet was minimal and believed that the Internet did not
play a role in their violent radicalization. This participant further noted that communicating with
other extremists online was “a waste of time” because most digital spaces of the extreme right
were “swarming” with members who lacked commitment to the cause. As this interviewee
added: “I was on Stormfront [a right-wing extremist discussion forum] for a bit, but nah…it was
almost minimal because it’s mostly just keyboard commandos and people that don’t show up for
events and just like to talk a big talk and not actually follow through” (Participant 5). Yet these
two participants’ experiences with the Internet during their processes of violent radicalization do
not represent the experiences of the majority of those who participated in the current study.
Exposure
Three of the participants were first exposed to violent extremist ideologies as a result of
accessing radical right-wing content online. One participant, for example, was an avid heavy
metal fan who frequented music discussion forums, and it was here that she first met a member
of a violent extremist group who began to share white power music with her. They eventually
built a friendship online, oftentimes discussing different genres of music, and here she shared
with him that she played the bass guitar. In an effort to increase her interest in white power
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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music and the violent extremist movement in general, he continuously shared white power music
with her that featured a prominent bass line. As this participant further added:
So, this guy messages me one day. I grew up listening to metal. And yeah, he was in a
[violent extremist] group so…we started chatting, and he sent me all these NSBM songs.
Nationalist Socialist Black Metal. As soon as he figured out I played bass, he’d send me
songs with really good basslines in them. Yeah and of course, you know, I was
fascinated. And I got to admit, a lot of them are actually very musically talented. I can
pick those things out being a bass player. (Participant 6)
Worth highlighting is that, unlike the above experiences that were shared by this participant,
most of the study participants who were first exposed to violent extremist ideologies online did
not “just stumble across the material”, as one interviewee put it. And how they were first
exposed to extremist content online varied by participant. For instance, one former extremist in
the current study who later led one of Canada’s most violent racist skinhead groups noted that he
was first exposed to violent extremist ideologies when an individual who he knew and trusted in
the offline world shared digital materials with him during an online conversation. Another
participant who later became an enforcer in a racist skinhead group explained that, as he was
getting to know a member of a violent extremist group during an offline interaction, he was later
encouraged by that adherent to visit the group’s websites to “get up to speed” on the goals of the
group. One participant who became a guitar player in a white power band that promoted violence
against immigrants also noted that, when he went to his first white power concert, it was here
that other concert goers suggested that he visit specific websites that sold hate music. But
regardless of how they were first exposed to the violent extremist content online, these
participants oftentimes described this exposure as a critical point that sparked their initial interest
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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in violent extremist ideologies. To illustrate, one interviewee, for example, recalled that
accessing extreme right-wing content online in the form of white power music videos exposed
them to violent extremist ideologies and, as a result, their curiosity in violent extremist
ideologies and the broader right-wing extremist movement was piqued. As this participant put it:
“I saw a few [white power music] video clips. I remember looking at what they called at the
time…was called Aryan Fest back then. So, I’d watch…you know, a few video clips of bands
playing live. That was pretty neat I first thought(Participant 4).
In addition, four of the interviewees were first exposed to violent extremist groups on the
Internet – most often through extreme right-wing discussion forums. In some instances, this
exposure was a result of participants being directed by a group member – who they were
communicating with online – to their group discussion forums. In other instances, participants
were exposed to group content while browsing through collective extremist forums for a general
extreme right-wing audience. One participant similarly recalls being exposed to a violent
extremist group for the first time online by visiting a group-based discussion forum and reaching
out to group members there. Another participant also described how a friend in the offline world
first exposed him to a violent extremist group by connecting him with the group through a
collective extremist forum.
Amongst the most common forms of violent extremist content that participants were
exposed to online during their initial process of violent radicalization was extreme right-wing
literature and music. To illustrate, one former who was active in violent racist skinhead groups
for approximately 15 years discussed the various extremist materials that they engaged with
online and claimed that they accessed violent extremist literature, from books to other short
readings, for the purposes of “research” and “nothing more, nothing less” (Participant 10). White
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power music, however, was the most popular form of extremist content that the interviewees
accessed online in their early stages of violent radicalization. Here they oftentimes discussed
how the music lyrics were particularly effective in conveying violent extremist ideologies, all
which tended to promote the use of violence in the name of the cause and to maintain a
“brotherhood” between movement adherents. As one participant who was involved in the violent
right-wing extremist movement for over 10 years explained it:
The messaging in the music was so important, right? You could learn more about
ideology from the music. Like you’d listen to one band that might be hate core, which is
one genre in the [white power] music where they’d talk about like…extreme shit like
just…you know, beating up immigrants on site, or even single-issue stuff. They would
talk about burning down native reservations or just really extreme stuff. And you could
listen to that if you were in a real pissed off mood. Or if you were in a party mood, you
could listen to another group that’s talking about brotherhood and…you know, everyone
getting together and…you know, that kind of thing. So, there was something for every
mood you were in I found. (Participant 2)
Three participants also noted that this white power music was rooted in upbeat, catchy rhythms,
which was particularly effective in capturing their initial interest in violent extremist ideologies.
It was the powerful and stimulating sound of the music that participants used to “absorb” the
“dark, frankly very inappropriate undertone of the lyrics”, as Participant 6 put it – and much
more effectively than violent extremist literature or lectures. As one interviewee best
summarized this sentiment:
Music’s a way to get your message across. Because a lot of people, especially young
people, don’t wanna listen to long ass speeches. I did because that’s…you know, that was
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
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just something that I enjoyed. But for a lot of people, they just want to listen to loud
music. They wanna hear…you know, loud guitars and punk or metal or music they can
mosh to and be angry to, and then hear messages that will align with their ideas. Music is
a way to rally people together. […] Music was kind of like a…it was just…it was a major
recruiting tool. (Participant 1)
During the discussions about exposure to violent extremist ideologies, the majority of the
participants noted that, whether this exposure happened online or offline, their initial interest in
the violent extremist ideologies stemmed from “wanting to be part of something”, as one
participant put it, or as another participant explained: “I definitely think it was the sense of
belonging I was first looking for” (Participant 6). Worth highlighting is that approximately three-
quarters of the study participants described feeling isolated and disconnected from their family
and friends, which they described as making them feel vulnerable of, and susceptible to, being
recruited into violent extremist groups. As one participant explained it: “I was a vulnerable kid,
right? I was looking for belonging, right? You could see the vulnerabilities. You could see a
person that was looking for direction” (Participant 2). Five study participants also added that
recruiters would oftentimes seek out these vulnerable individuals, both on- and offline, and
attempt to introduce them to violent extremist ideologies. Participant 6, for example, explained
that: “As far the recruiters themselves, […] a lot of the time they will go after that kid who is
isolating, feels alone and…like, they want someone who’s isolated and who will trust them
immediately.” Similarly, one former extremist in the current study described his interactions with
an individual who eventually recruited him into a violent extremist group:
The main thing he did was give me belonging and he promised me that, “hey, if you
come and hang out and I’ll introduce you to more of these guys.” And I always wanted to
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
18
belong to something because I had failed at sports, I had failed at joining gangs, I had
failed at…you know, many different groups of friends too. He just had…he offered
that…he offered that availably and said “hey, look at this group. All you need to do is be
white”. You know? And…you know, at first it was hard to accept…you know, some of
the stuff they were staying…like all the racial stuff [...] I just wanted to get to the concert,
or the meeting, or whatever to hang out with all the guys. But of course, it was a
necessary point for the far-right, so I went with it. (Participant 2)
Immersion
Following their initial exposure to violent extremist content online, study participants commonly
reported that, because they wanted to feel like part of a group, they continued to use the Internet
to access a variety of forms of extreme right-wing content to indulge their “newfound curiosity”
in violent extremist ideologies. In fact, half of the study participants spent a significant amount
of time online every day accessing extremist content and immersing themselves in violent
extremist ideologies during their process of violent radicalization. As one participant who was a
member of one of the most violent racist skinhead groups in Canada put it:
…most of the time, I’m on my own. And between school stuff I would be reading this
[extreme right-wing] stuff constantly. So yeah, I’m on here [the Internet] and I’m on
these [extreme right] forums, you know? Even if I’m not posting directly, I’m reading…
I’m reading what other people are saying. [...] I’m sitting there reading, like, “you’re
right, you’re right.” And then they would say, “well, you should read this article” and
then it’s just like boom – all of a sudden, by the end you’d be reading a hundred different
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articles about this stuff. And then it’s like, oh my god…it’s like three in the morning, you
know? And that was like all the time. (Participant 1)
The majority of the study participants further added that, during their process of radicalization to
violence, they increasingly immersed themselves in violent extremist content as well as right-
wing extremist networks via online discussion forums, chatrooms and social media platforms.
That is, eight of the study participants frequented extreme right-wing discussion forums – which
included collective extremist forums for a general audience (e.g., Stormfront) and forums
dedicated to violent extremist groups – and three of them used social media sites like Facebook,
Twitter, and YouTube. Three study participants also mentioned that online chatrooms, such as
MSN and Yahoo messenger, were commonly used by violent extremist groups who they were
becoming involved with to facilitate group meetings. Participants oftentimes noted that these
digital spaces allowed them to connect and communicate with supportive, like-minded peers
about their grievances and perceived injustices, amongst other things, which made them feel
connected to a larger “community.” Participant 6, for example, described these online spaces as
“empowering” during her process of violent radicalization, noting that: “looking back on it, we
enabled each other quite a bit online. Like… whenever we would ever see a problem, another
friend of ours would tell us, ‘okay, well it’s these peoples’ fault!’ Like…they’d always find a
way to twist it around and blame somebody else.” Engaging in these virtual communities,
according to eight interviewees, reaffirmed their radical views and, by extension, facilitated their
process of violent radicalization. In particular, formers in the current study oftentimes discussed
how chatrooms (e.g., MSN and Yahoo messenger) and extreme right-wing discussion forums
provided them with an important space to engage with their like-minded and oftentimes violent
peers, largely because, during their process of violent radicalization, a peer network of like-
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
20
minded individuals in the offline world was missing. As one participant explained it: “As I got
more into white power, I became more anti-social. I started to participate less and less in
like…sports and going out. I went to chatrooms and forums because it’s where you can connect
with other people who have the same views as you. That’s how it started” (Participant 1).
Oftentimes discussed within this context was how, when study participants were able to engage
in an online network of like-minded others, it facilitated their process of violent radicalization
because they could communicate directly with “seasoned members” of the violent movement.
This, according to seven participants, was a key element that facilitated their involvement in
violent extremist groups because these adherents provided them with a significant amount of
knowledge about the right-wing extremist movement. Within this context, one study participant,
for example, noted that:
I would learn as much as I could from people [in the violent extremist movement],
especially those who had been involved for longer. Because when I started [to get
involved in violent extremism] from the beginning, I didn’t know anything, you know?
At the beginning, you start learning, you start learning all this [extreme right] lingo.
You’re like, “what’s fourteen words? Oh right! Well who is that guy in the movement?”
He goes, “well, he started this group called The Order.” And you go, “well, what’s The
Order?” He goes, “well, they’re a group who robbed banks and they were like white
revolutionaries!” and I’m like, “well, that’s so cool!” I’m like, “where can I learn more
about that?” He’s like, “well, read this book. And then there’s a movie, and then you can
learn about it and this other [extreme right] guy too.” And then I find out that the guy
from The Order is in jail and I can reach him and I can write to them! (Participant 1)
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
21
Also discussed in this regard was how, in the online world, seasoned members were very
generous with their time and dedication to mentoring younger recruits. These established
members offered the newer recruits detailed, intimate and personal insights into the beliefs,
norms, and values of the violent right-wing extremist movement as well as provided guidance
and support about life-matters in general and matters relating to right-wing extremism in
particular. It was this kind of support that interviewees were oftentimes looking for in the offline
world, largely because they felt alone in their extreme beliefs as most friends and family
members did not share similar views, nor did they support the use of violence in the name of a
particular extremist ideology or group. Again, the majority of the study participants oftentimes
discussed feeling like an “outsider” prior to their process of violent radicalization, noting for
example that they felt disconnected from people, or as one participant explained: “I could be in a
crowd of like… forty or fifty, and I…I would feel like I didn’t belong(Participant 8). When
these seasoned members gave them attention and made them feel like part of a group, it was here
that they began to immerse themselves with violent extremist content online.
The Role of the Internet in Connecting the On- and Offline Worlds of Violent Extremists
When study participants were asked about the ways that the Internet connected their on- and
offline worlds during their involvement in violent extremist groups, participants initially
explained how their on- and offline worlds did not operate independently from one another.
Rather, their on- and offline worlds tended to interact with regard to their activities, identities,
and security and surveillance.
Activities
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
22
Eight of the study participants explained how discussion forums, chatrooms, and social media
sites were ideal spaces to advertise events being held by violent extremist groups in the offline
world. For example, four participants described how designated extremist forums for groups who
were known to engage in violence offline advertised group-specific events (e.g., concerts,
gatherings) on their platforms. Similarly, collective extremist forums for a general audience,
such as Stormfront, were described by six interviewees as ideal platforms for adherents to
advertise offline events that oftentimes involved violence (e.g., rallies, protests) because it was
the largest and most active online hate site. As Participant 2 further added, Stormfront was “the
communication forum for all the organized hate groups”. Having said that, these study
participants noted that, for those who advertised offline events on popular platforms such as
Stormfront, they were generally successful in attracting adherents to the events. As one
participant who was an event promoter during his eight years in a violent racist skinhead group
explained it: “I’d actually go on there [Stormfront] when I wanted to post something. I’d create a
flyer through Photoshop or whatever and then post it on to Stormfront. And that was that – lots
of people would show up” (Participant 4). Worth noting here is that the purpose of advertising
these offline events in online spaces, according to five interviewees, was not only to encourage
adherents to connect with others in the offline world, but to encourage others to engage in
movement-related activities and, in many cases the use of violence, beyond the digital world.
Seven participants also explained that such online platforms were exploited by the recruiters of
violent extremist groups to attract new members. Stormfront, for example, was a popular space
for such activity because recruiters could identify and connect with local adherents who were
interested in joining a group. As an example, one former extremist in the current study who was
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
23
also a recruiter during their involvement in a violent extremist group described their use of
Stormfront for recruitment purposes:
Early on, recruitment was…usually happening face-to-face before the Internet. But then
when the Internet came along, we would use the Internet as that tool [to recruit], right?
So, we would post, “hey we’re having a meeting on August 2nd. Any interested people
come on out”. [...] And then we’d…you know, if we found a couple of guys that were
more interested, you’d give them your email or you’d give them your MSN [messenger]
name or whatever. And then you’d have a chat and then maybe meet up again when it’s
not prearranged…like that publicly like on Stormfront. (Participant 2)
Approximately one-third of the study participants also reported that, during their
involvement in violent racist skinhead groups, they themselves used the Internet to organize and
facilitate their activities with other violent individuals and groups in the offline world.
Participants also noted that they used online platforms to meet their first offline violent extremist
peers and groups, including to attend their first violent extremist events such as white power
music concerts and music festivals that promoted the genocide of Jews. Interestingly, a key
feature of online platforms that facilitated the connection with the offline world, according to
interviewees, was the interactive and localized nature of these spaces; the like-minded could seek
out, connect and interact with local adherents online who shared their views and who they could
then meet in offline, in-person settings. One participant, for example, explained that online
discussion forums were instrumental in helping them make some of their first connections with
local members of a violent extremist group, which eventually led to them becoming an active
violent adherent in the offline world. As this interviewee and another explained:
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
24
Both the group I eventually became part of and other [extreme right] groups had a
website. And from there, I remember they had a web board. And that’s where I first
connected with people who were local. And, yeah, so I used that board to meet people
online and connect offline. (Participant 1)
Each group has its own site, right? Groups had publicly available websites that are about
their group, right? Then you can join the forums, hear about what they’re doing, and then
get involved and all that kind of shit offline. (Participant 2)
In addition, over one-third of the study participants discussed how they, themselves, used online
platforms to engage in various online activities in the name of the cause, which they oftentimes
described as “spilling over into the offline world”. Such activities included flyering campaigns
that promoted violence against the LGBTQ community, with propaganda flyers first being
publicized to adherents within extreme right-wing discussion forums for the purpose of
encouraging others to print and disseminate the flyers within their local communicates. Similar
strategies were used to advertise white power music events that promoted violent right-wing
extremist beliefs, including concerts and festivals. Study participants also described how they
used music sharing websites specifically for the extreme right (e.g., Tightrope Records and
Resistance Records) as well as popular online music services (e.g., Napster and Limewire) and
online shopping sites (e.g., Ebay) to share and exchange violent white power music with others
at a local, national, and international level. Oftentimes discussed within this context was how
they could distribute the hateful music, both on- and offline, as a result of the laissez-faire
content policies that were maintained by the websites. Three participants also noted that they
sold music online in the form of compact discs (CDs) to offline buyers and made a substantial
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
25
profit as a result of the high volume of sales. One participant, for example, described how they
used the popular online platform eBay to disseminate white power music that promoted violence
against Jews: “Back then eBay wasn’t cracking down as hard on it [white power music]. So, I
used to sell the shit outta white power music on eBay! I used to…I used to make like three or
four thousand dollars a month selling white power music on eBay.” (Participant 8)
Identities
Study participants oftentimes discussed how their on-and offline identities were interconnected
during their involvement in a violent extremist group, with over half of the interviewees
reporting no substantial differences between their on- and offline identities. For three of these
participants, they discussed how they maintained the same identity both on- and offline in an
effort to represent an authentic version of themselves and their beliefs, as well as for the purpose
of creating authentic connections with other violent adherents. In this regard, one participant
explained that “for me, it was just about…just being involved with other people who felt the
same. That was the whole thing [about how I represented myself online and offline](Participant
1). Similarly, three study participants reported that they maintained the same on- and offline
identities because they associated their identity with their role in the violent extremist group. To
illustrate, one participant explained that their on- and offline identities were the same because
they considered the online world to be “just another space” to engage in similar movement-
related activities, comparable to how they would engage in offline. As this study participant
further noted:
For me, I think I was the same person [online and offline]. Like, on the…on the websites,
I was always…a recruiter. On the outside, I was a recruiter. [...] I never tried to create a
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
26
false persona online to make me seem better or worse than I was in person. [...] It was
very evident who I was…in…offline too, right? I was proud of it! (Participant 2)
Although most interviewees maintained that they had the same identity in both offline and online
settings, four of the study participants were convinced that there were discrepancies between the
on- and offline identities of some of the “violent right-wing extremists” they encountered online.
These four participants noted that these so-called violent extremists may have felt emboldened
by the anonymous nature of the Internet, as they could present themselves as violent and
committed to the cause in online settings. One participant further added that: “I just pictured
them as back-talking keyboard cowboys. I’ve seen these guys online and they’re talking tough.
You want to be a tough guy? We’re gonna be face-to-face! I’m not going to be the guy
hammering out all of your threats on a keyboard” (Participant 7). Such an online identity was
largely regarded by the study participants as inauthentic. That is, despite their willingness to
present themselves as violent extreme right-wing adherents, these “Net Nazis” would not meet
other adherents in-person and, as a consequence, their violent and extreme identity could not be
verified. This was frustrating for four study participants, as they oftentimes connected digital
spaces of the extreme right with those that were crowded with “Internet warriors” who would
engage in violent conversations online, but in reality were, as one participant explained it, just
“sitting there with a Big Gulp in their mom’s basement and is 50 years old.” (Participant 2)
Security and Surveillance
What emerged during the interviews with the former extremists was an interaction between their
online activities and concerns about offline security. In particular, approximately three-quarters
of the study participants noted that, during their involvement in a violent extremist group, they
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
27
were oftentimes concerned that law enforcement officials and anti-racist groups were actively
monitoring their online activities and trying to “bait” them into providing personal information to
infiltrate their group. As one participant put it: “Whenever I was online, I treated every single
minute of every single day like everything I was saying was going right to a fucking cop
(Participant 10). Another interviewee who was an active recruiter added that:
I tried to meet up with people that I first met online, but I ended up meeting up with cops
lots of times. Or informants. Or anti-racists. I mean…there’s one instance where for sure
we meet up with an anti-racist guy who was pretending to be a white supremacist online,
right? So, I mean…you can’t discount that these types of groups like anti-racists and cops
aren’t going to try everything to infiltrate the groups, right? (Participant 2)
Three study participants even feared that this “surveillance” spanned across platforms to all of
their online activities. As a result, interviewees were concerned with and cautious about their
online activities and were suspicious about online users who they interacted with – particularly
when communicating in extremist spaces online. For those who they initially connected with
there, study participants explained how they had to exercise caution during their attempts to meet
with them in-person. Interviewees, for example, described their efforts to scrutinize the online
activities of those who they were interested in meeting in person, looking for indicators to
suggest that online users were not, in fact, violent right-wing extremists but instead were uncover
police officers or anti-racists. As one interviewee explained: “If some guy’s sending you a
message and it’s all questions, you start to wonder, “is this an anti-racist or is this a cop?” Or if
they’re asking, “what’s your name?” or “what city are you in?”, that’s frickin’ cop behavior,
right? That’s what would come to mind right away” (Participant 2). Another study participant
added that these indicators included online behaviors that were “over the top extreme”, all in an
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
28
effort gather information on an adherent or their associated violent extremist group: “If you’re
talking to somebody about meeting up, you may meet if they didn’t hit the big warning
signals…like, the big red flags…like, if they weren’t talking out of their ass or talking like they
were trying to overthrow the fucking government or any of that stupid shit that you expect from
somebody who’s trying to research the movement properly” (Participant 10).
As a result of the above-mentioned security and surveillance concerns, four of the study
participants noted that they took measures to conceal their group-related activities online to
avoid detection from law enforcement or anti-racist groups. One measure, for example, related to
the computers they used to access extremist content and networks online. To illustrate, when
study participants were asked whether they were security-conscious about their online activities
while involved with a violent extremist group, two interviewees noted that they avoided using
their personal computers to access extremist content or interact with other adherents online.
Participant 10, for example, noted that: “I didn’t send emails. I didn’t join web-forums or
message boards from my computer, at all.” Instead, this participant ventured outside the home, to
libraries or Internet cafés, to use the Internet because they believed their Internet history could
not be traced back to them – or not easily at least. Similarly, another interviewee took measures
to conceal their affiliation with the violent group on their personal social media profile by
modifying their security settings: “I set all my security settings to private. So, you had to be on
my contacts list to see what I was posting” (Participant 6). One study participant – who, at one
time, was the president of one of the most violent racist skinhead groups in Canada – also
indicated that, to avoid detection from law enforcement, he avoided posting messages on the
more popular extreme right-wing platforms and instead had others post on behalf of his group: “I
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
29
let other guys deal with that stuff. It’s like…yeah, go ahead post this, go ahead post that”
(Participant 7).
Discussion
Researchers and practitioners have shown a growing interest in drawing from the insights of
former extremists to address key research questions in terrorism and extremism studies,
42
including studies focusing on processes of radicalization to violent extremism
43
and processes of
deradicalization and disengagement from violent extremism,
44
for example. But within this
emerging area of work, relatively few empirically grounded studies have interviewed former
extremists about their Internet usage and activity when they were involved in violent extremist
groups or movements.
45
This is in light of the fact that many researchers, practitioners, and
policy-makers continue to raise questions about the role of the Internet in facilitating violent
extremism.
46
The purpose of this study, then, was to address this area of inquiry by drawing from
the insights of former right-wing extremists who were involved in violent racist skinhead groups,
asking them questions about their online activities during their involvement in violent extremism
and with a particular focus on their processes of violent radicalization and the connections
between their on- and offline worlds. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study.
First, with regard to how formers in the current study were first exposed to violent right-
wing extremist ideologies and groups, the results are mixed: approximately one-third of the study
participants were first exposed online while the remainder were exposed via offline interactions.
This finding aligns with empirical work that highlights the complex and multi-dimensional
nature of initial exposure to violent extremism, particularly of violent right-wing extremist
content
47
and jihadi content.
48
For our study participants, however, exposure most commonly
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
30
occurred after a “friend” in the offline world who they knew and trusted directed them to violent
extremist materials online – a finding that is supported by empirical research on the importance
of trust in attracting individuals to violent right-wing extremist movements.
49
Such a finding also
mirrors empirical work which found that the Internet played a secondary role in radicalizing U.S.
extremists (Islamist, far-left, far-right, and single-issue) to violence, wherein the Internet was
used to “reaffirm or advance pre-existing extremist beliefs that were first acquired through face-
to-face relationships.”
50
Regardless, it is worth adding that exposure to extremist content online
played a critical role in sparking participants’ interest in violent extremist ideologies, which
aligns with previous empirical work highlighting the importance of exposure to extremist content
in instilling violent extremist ideologies, whether it is from the extreme right
51
or other types of
violent extremist movements.
52
But what is apparent in our study is that it is those who are
susceptible to being recruited into violent extremist groups and have a desire to “belong to
something”, as one participant put it, that sparks initial interest in the violent extremist
ideologies. This need to be part of the collective is key factor discussed in a number of empirical
studies on violent radicalization and right-wing extremist movements.
53
Second, our study findings reveal that, regardless of how individuals are first exposed to
violent extremist ideologies and groups, it is the Internet that eventually facilitates processes of
violent radicalization by enabling them to immerse themselves in extremist content and networks
a finding supported by empirical research on the role of the Internet in facilitating an array of
violent extremist movements (e.g., the extreme right, jihadi, single issue)
54
and the extreme right-
wing movement in particular.
55
And similar to previous research which observed that online
spaces of the extreme right – from discussion forums to social media and fringe platforms –
serve as important virtual communities for adherents to support one another, amongst other
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
31
things,
56
interviewees in our study oftentimes reported that seasoned or veteran extreme-right
wing adherents “took them under their wing” in online settings, providing them with information
and offering them a sense of belonging that participants were seeking. Within this context,
former extremists in the current study also highlight the importance of exposure to white power
music online in facilitating their process of violent radicalization. Indeed, the power of white
power and national socialist black metal music as a recruitment tool for violent extremists has
been underscored in a number of empirical studies
57
and has been found to be a key pillar of
racist skinhead subculture generally.
58
Third and finally, our study findings highlight an important interaction between the on-
and offline worlds of violent right-wing extremists which are intertwined with extremist
activities, identities, and a need for security. To illustrate, former extremists in the current study
believe that the Internet can serve as a gateway for individuals to engage in violent extremist
activities offline, connecting adherents in the online world to the offline world, oftentimes
through the online promotion of offline events (e.g., concerts, rallies, protests, and gatherings) –
a set of findings that aligns with empirical work emphasizing an important relationship between
online interactions with offline extremist events underpinning various right-wing extremist
movements.
59
Worth adding here is that most of our study participants were concerned about
their on- and offline security during their involvement in violent extremists groups, noting that
they modified their on- and offline behaviors to avoid detection and infiltration from law
enforcement and anti-fascist groups. Similar tactics have been adopted by a newer generation of
right-wing extremists who in recent years have exploited various encrypted online platforms and
messaging apps to avoid being tracked and detected.
60
Interestingly, though, is that, despite our
study participants’ security concerns, most participants in our study – unlike the newer
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
32
generation of violent right-wing extremists who are active and communicate anonymously in
various encrypted online spaces
61
–, maintained the same identities in both their on- and offline
worlds and displayed their roles in the movement (e.g., as recruiters or promoters) similarly in
both worlds. Discussed within this context was how the Internet was flooded with “Net Nazis” or
“Internet Warriors” (i.e., adherents who were very active online but would not meet others
offline), which reflects what some in terrorism and extremism studies have described as activity
involving individuals who behave more violently online when there is a perception of increased
anonymity and privacy there.
62
Limitations and Future Research
While this study offers a first-hand account of the interplay between the Internet and violent
extremism by drawing from the insights of former right-wing extremists, this study is not
without its limitations.
First, the retrospective nature of the in-depth interviews with former extremists raises
questions about the reliability of some of their accounts of past events, especially those described
as significant in retrospect, due to memory erosion, distortion, and selective recall.
63
Having said
that, future studies may consider verifying the authenticity of formers’ accounts by triangulating
interview data with interviews with family members or peers as well as analyses of open source
intelligence (e.g., court records, media scans, website analysis, etc.).
Second, our study included a relatively small sample size and was focused on a specific
type of violent extremist in one geographical context. The study sample also consisted of a group
of formers who were deeply entrenched in violent racist skinhead groups for an extensive period
of time and who may also be deemed the “older guard” of the violence right-wing extremist
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
33
movement. Although the purpose of this exploratory study was not to be representative or
provide generalizations, future research should include larger sample sizes in an effort to better
inform practitioners and policymakers on the role of the Internet in facilitating violent
extremism. Future studies should also incorporate different types of comparison groups, perhaps
using Qualitative Comparative Analysis (csQCA)
64
used by researchers in terrorism and
extremism studies
65
, to assess whether the study findings are unique to the ten former extremists
who we interviewed. Future research could compare former extremists’ Internet usage and how
their on- and offline worlds interacted when they were involved in violent extremism across
movements (i.e., former Islamist extremists versus right-wing extremists versus left-wing
extremists), across nations (e.g., the United States versus the United Kingdom versus Europe
versus Australia), and across time frames in which they were active in a particular violent
extremist movement (e.g., 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and now).
66
Comparison groups may also
include non-violent extremists,
67
or a younger generation of those who are currently active in
extremism, as their experiences with the Internet during their involvement in extremism will
most likely differ from those who participated in the current study. Together, all of these
comparisons would provide a more nuanced account of the complex link between the Internet
and violent extremism as well as the evolving connection between the on- and offline worlds of
violent extremists.
Lastly, while the current study shed some light on the impact of the consumption of and
networking around violent extremist content and users online, our understanding of the extent to
which their uptake of extremist ideology and decision to engage in violent extremism as a result
of such exposure is limited. Having said this, the key now is to build upon this exploratory study
to give us a sense of not just whether exposure to ideological content in the online environment
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
34
causes violent extremism, but also how, in what contexts and for whom? Is ‘exposure’ sufficient
whether it is in the virtual or physical world? Does it work differently for different people in
different contexts? To unpick the specificity of the ‘online’ environment, exposure to other
materials offline have to be incorporated into research designs. The only study of its type is
Turpin-Petrosino
68
who conducted 567 surveys with secondary school and university-level
students. The surveys centered around exposure to hate group propaganda and individual
attitudes towards these groups. Of the six exposure types (i.e., print material contact, word-of-
mouth contact, U.S. mail contact, local cable television contact, Internet contact, and phone
contact), the Internet was the third most prolific source in changing people’s attitudes – behind
word-of mouth contact and phone contact. Given the large innovations in the immersiveness of
the online space since this study was conducted, further empirical undertakings are necessary.
Furthermore, recent research on exposure to violent extremist content in online environments –
and via new social media platforms – have demonstrated that when social climates of fear,
uncertainty and polarization are more prevalent, there are increased chances of individuals
encountering rhetoric that support hateful content and violent extremist ideologies and thus serve
as platforms for recruitment into violent extremism.
69
Future empirical studies that include the
experiences of former and/or current extremists in this regard should examine in more detail how
combined exposure and consumption to violent extremist rhetoric in divisive socio-cultural and
political climates might have contributed to their violent radicalization. This could be done by
incorporating various grading scales that have been used in terrorism and extremism studies to
categorize and assess levels of violent extremism found in the content consumed by users,
70
especially as exposure and consumption develop and evolve over time.
Notes
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
35
1
Daniel Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization: Methods, Tools and Programs for
Countering Violent Extremism (London: Routledge, 2017); Ryan Scrivens, Vivek Venkatesh,
Maxime Bérubé, and Tiana Gaudette, “Combating Violent Extremism: Voices of Former Right-
Wing Extremists,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Ahead of Print; Marian Tapley and Gordon
Clubb, The Role of Formers in Countering Violent Extremism (The Hague: International Centre
for Counter-Terrorism, 2019).
2
See Daniel Koehler, “Involvement of Formers in Countering Violent Extremism: A critical
Perspective on Commonly Held Assumptions,” in Maria Walsh and Antje Gansewig, eds.,
Frühere Extremisten in der schulischen Präventionsarbeit (Bonn, Deutschland: Berichte des
Nationalen Zentrums für Kriminalprävention), pp. 15-22; see also Radicalisation Awareness
Network, Dos and Don’ts of Involving Formers in PVE/CVE Work (Bordeaux: RAN Centre of
Excellence, 2017).
3
Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan, eds. Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective
Disengagement (London: Routledge, 2008); Kurt Braddock and John Horgan, “Towards a Guide
for Constructing and Disseminating Counternarratives to Reduce Support for Terrorism,” Studies
in Conflict & Terrorism 39 (2016): 381-404.
4
Julie Chernov Hwang and Kirsten E. Schulze, “Why They Join: Pathways into Indonesian
Jihadist Organizations,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 30 (2018): 911-932; Daniel Koehler,
“Right-Wing Extremist Radicalization Processes: The Formers’ Perspective,” JEX Journal
EXIT-Deutschland 1 (2014): 307-377; Daniel Koehler, “The Radical Online: Individual
Radicalization Processes and the Role of the Internet,” Journal for Deradicalization 1 (2014):
116-134; Pete Simi, Karyn Sporer, and Bryan F. Bubolz, “Narratives of Childhood Adversity
and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism: A Life-Course Criminological
Approach,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 53 (2016): 536-563.
5
Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle, and John Horgan, “Terrorist Transformations: The
Link Between Terrorist Roles and Terrorist Disengagement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
Ahead of Print; Kate Barrelle, “Pro-Integration: Disengagement from and Life After
Extremism,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 7 (2015): 129-142;
Bryan F. Bubolz and Pete Simi, “Leaving the World of Hate: Life-Course Transitions and Self-
Change,” American Behavioral Scientist 59 (2015): 1588-1608; John Horgan, Mary Beth Altier,
Neil Shortland, and Max Taylor, “Walking Away: The Disengagement and De-Radicalization of
a Violent Right-Wing Extremist,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 9
(2017):63-77; Michael Jensen, Patrick James, and Elizabeth Yates, “Contextualizing
Disengagement: How Exit Barriers Shape the Pathways Out of Far-Right Extremism in the
United States,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Ahead of Print; Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee,
Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch, “Addicted to Hate: Identity Residual among Former
White Supremacists,” American Sociological Review 82 (2017): 1167-1187; Steven Windisch,
Gina Scott Ligon, and Pete Simi, “Organizational [Dis]trust: Comparing Disengagement Among
Former Left-Wing and Right-Wing Violent Extremists,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 42
(2019): 559-580.
6
Stijn Sieckelinck, Elga Sikkens, Marion van San, Sita Kotnis, and Micha de Winter,
“Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism. A Biographical Approach,” Studies in
Conflict & Terrorism 42 (2019): 662-682.
7
Elga Sikkens, Marion van San, Stijn Sieckelinck, and Micha de Winter, “Parental Influence on
Radicalization and De-Radicalization According to the Lived Experiences of Former Extremists
and Their Families,” Journal for Deradicalization 12 (2017): 192-226.
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
36
8
Jerome Drevon, “Embracing Salafi Jihadism in Egypt and Mobilizing in the Syrian Jihad,”
Middle East Critique 25 (2016): 321-339; Koehler, “The Radical Online”; Inga Sikorskaya,
Messages, Images and Media Channels Promoting Youth Radicalization in Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek:
Search for Common Ground, 2017); Ines von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke
Gribbon, Radicalization in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and
Extremism (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2013).
9
Pete Simi and Steven Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails: Barriers to Mass Casualty
Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 32 (2018): 831-850.
10
Gordon Clubb, “‘From Terrorists to Peacekeepers’: The IRA’s Disengagement and the Role of
Community Networks,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (2014): 842-861.
11
David Parker and Lasse Lindekilde, “Preventing Extremism with Extremists: A Double-Edged
Sword? An Analysis of the Impact of Using Former Extremists in Danish Schools,” Education
Sciences 10 (2020): 1-19.
12
Scrivens et al., “Combating Violent Extremism.”
13
Mehr Latif, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Pete Simi. “Do White Supremacist
Women Adopt Movement Archetypes of Mother, Whore, and Fighter?” Studies in Conflict &
Terrorism. Ahead of Print.
14
See Ryan Scrivens, Steven Windisch, and Pete Simi, “Former Extremists in Radicalization and
Counter-Radicalization Research,” in Derek M. D. Silva and Mathieu Deflem, eds.,
Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization (Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, In Press).
15
Ryan Scrivens, Paul Gill, and Maura Conway, “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent
Extremism and Terrorism: Suggestions for Progressing Research,” in Thomas J. Holt and Adam
Bossler, Eds., The Palgrave Handbook of International Cybercrime and Cyberdeviance
(London, UK: Palgrave, 2020), pp. 1-22.
16
See Maura Conway, “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and
Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40
(2016): 77-98; see also Scrivens et al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent
Extremism and Terrorism.”
17
Koehler, “The Radical Online.”
18
Ibid.
19
Sieckelinck et al., “Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism.”
20
Gaetano Joe Ilardi, “Interviews with Canadian Radicals,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36
(2013), p. 728.
21
Wojcieszak, Magdalena, “‘Don’t Talk to Me’: Effects of Ideological Homogenous Online
Groups and Politically Dissimilar Offline Ties on Extremism,New Media and Society 12
(2010): 637-655.
22
Süleyman Özeren, Murat Sever, Kamil Yilmaz, and Alper Sözer, “Whom Do They Recruit?
Profiling and Recruitment in the PKK/KCK,” Studies in Conflict &Terrorism 37 (2014): 322-
347.
23
Hélène Bazex and Jean-Yves Mensat, “Who are the French Jihadists? Analysis of 12 Cases to
Help Develop Profiles and Assessment of the Risk of Acting Out,” Annales Medico-
Psychologiques 174 (2016): 257-265.
24
Scrivens et al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism and Terrorism.”
25
Conway, “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism”;
Scrivens et al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism and Terrorism.”
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
37
26
Paul Gill, Emily Corner, Maura Conway, Amy Thornton, Mia Bloom, and John Horgan,
“Terrorist Use of the Internet by the Numbers: Quantifying Behaviors, Patterns, and Processes,”
Criminology & Public Policy 16 (2017): 99-117; Ghayda Hassan, Sebastien Brouillette-Alarie,
Seraphin Alava, Divina Frau-Meigs, Lysiane Lavoie, Arber Fetiu, ... and Stijn Sieckelinck,
“Exposure to Extremist Online Content Could Lead to Violent Radicalization: A Systematic
Review of Empirical Evidence,” International Journal of Developmental Science 12 (2018): 71-
88.
27
Scrivens et al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism and Terrorism.”
28
Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization; Tapley and Gordon Clubb, The Role of Formers in
Countering Violent Extremism.
29
A notable exception includes Scrivens et al., “Combating Violent Extremism.”
30
See Ibid.
31
Law enforcement officials who participated in the study were working in Ontario, Quebec,
British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick and were stationed in various law enforcement
divisions, including research and innovation; crime prevention; major crimes; behavior analysis;
federal policing; state protection and intelligence; hate crimes, and; the extremist threat division.
Community activists who participated in the study were situated in Ontario, Quebec, and
Alberta, and were active members of various anti-hate initiatives across Canada.
32
Interview questions were organized into the following categories:
(1) Personal experiences in violent extremism: (i) before the radicalization process; (ii)
radicalization process; (iii) experiences in the violent extremist movement; (iv) leaving
violent extremism; and, (v) reflections after leaving violent extremism.
(2) Responding to violent extremism: (i) disengagement from violent extremism; (ii)
deradicalization from violent extremism; and, (ii) Preventing and countering violent
extremism.
33
While certain terms, such as ‘radicalization’ and ‘de-radicalization’, were included in the
initial interview guide, we were concerned that some of the study participants may be put off by
these terms. Other participants may have been involved in violent extremism prior to such terms
being used in the mainstream. As a result, our interview guide, while systematic, was also
flexible and dynamic. As but one way to account for the above concerns, within our interview
guide we included a side list of alternative terms and ways of framing the questions. For terms
associated with ‘radicalization’, as an example, alternative terms included ‘indoctrination’ or
alternative wording such as ‘adhering to radical views’ or ‘thinking differently than other
people.’ For terms associated with ‘de-radicalization’, alternative wording included ‘being open-
minded’ or ‘thinking differently.’
34
It is important to highlight that, while the interview guide consisted of a set of questions that
corresponded specifically with the interview guide categories noted above (such as “how old
were you when you were first introduced to radical beliefs), the guide also consisted of a similar
and rigorous set of questions within and across categories. For example, the guide included a
systematic series of questions about friendship networks, belief systems, use of the Internet, and
interactions with law enforcement (amongst many other topics of discussion) both before,
during, and after being involved in violent extremism.
35
See Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada (Cham: Palgrave,
2019).
36
Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden
Spaces of Hate (2nd Ed) (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015, p. 17).
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
38
37 Arie Perliger, Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Far Right (West
Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012).
38
Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, Extreme-Right Violence and Terrorism: Concepts,
Patterns, and Responses (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2019, p. 5).
39
The name of this racist skinhead group or other groups that study participants were involved in
are not disclosed because doing so could reveal their identities.
40
See Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (London: Sage, 2006).
41
Norman K. Denzin, The Research Act in Sociology (Chicago: Aldine, 1970).
42
See Scrivens et al., “Former Extremists in Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization
Research.”
43
Koehler, “Right-Wing Extremist Radicalization Processes”; Simi et al., “Narratives of
Childhood Adversity and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism.”
44
Barrelle, “Pro-Integration”; Horgan et al., “Walking Away.”
45
Notable exceptions include Koehler, “The Radical Online” and Sieckelinck et al.,
“Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism.”
46
Scrivens et al., “The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Violent Extremism and Terrorism.”
47
Sieckelinck et al., “Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism”; Pete Simi and Robert
Futrell, “Cyberculture and the Endurance of White Power Activism,” Journal of Political and
Military Sociology 34 (2006): 115-142.
48
Drevon, “Embracing Salafi Jihadism in Egypt and Mobilizing in the Syrian Jihad.”
49
Tore Bjørgo, Racist and Right-Wing Violence in Scandinavia: Patterns, Perpetrators, and
Responses (Oslo: Tano-Aschehoug, 1997); Kathleen M. Blee, Inside Organized Racism: Women
in the Hate Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002); Barbara Perry and
Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada; Simi and Futrell, American Swastika.
50
Michael Jensen, and Patrick James, Gary LaFree, Aaron Safer-Lichtenstein, and Elizabeth
Yates. The Use of Social Media by United States Extremists (College Park, MD, START: 2018,
p. 2).
51
Wojcieszak, “‘Don’t Talk to Me’.”
52
Bazex and Mensat, “Who are the French Jihadists?”; Ilardi, “Interviews with Canadian
Radicals.”
53
Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada; Sieckelinck et al.,
Transitional Journeys Into and Out of Extremism”; Simi and Futrell, American Swastika.
54
Gill et al., “Terrorist Use of the Internet by the Numbers”; Paul Gill and Emily Corner, “Lone-
Actor Terrorist Use of the Internet and Behavioural Correlates,” in Lee Jarvis, Stuart.
Macdonald, and Thomas M. Chen, Eds., Terrorism Online: Politics, Law, Technology and
Unconventional Violence (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 35-53; von Behr et al., Radicalization
in the Digital Era.
55
Jensen et al., The Use of Social Media by United States Extremists; Koehler, “The Radical
Online.”
56
Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner. ‘The Great Replacement:’ The Violent Consequences of
Mainstreamed Extremism (London: Institute for Strategic Dialogue); Maura Conway, Ryan
Scrivens and Logan Macnair, Right-Wing Extremists’ Persistent Online Presence: History and
Contemporary Trends (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2019).
57
Robert Futrell, Pete Simi, and Simon Gottschalk, “Understanding Music in Movements: The
White Power Music Scene,” The Sociological Quarterly, 47 (2006): 275-304; Barbara Perry and
Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada; Simi and Futrell, American Swastika; Vivek
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN FACILITATING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
39
Venkatesh, Jeffrey S. Podoshen, Kathryn Urbaniak, and Jason J. Wallin, “Eschewing
Community: Black
Metal,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 25 (2015): 66-81.
58
Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, Right-Wing Extremism in Canada; Simi and Futrell,
American Swastika.
59
Koehler, “The Radical Online”; Simi and Futrell, American Swastika.
60
See Conway et al., Right-Wing Extremists’ Persistent Online Presence.
61
See Ibid.
62
Koehler, “The Radical Online.”
63
See A. D. Baddeley, “Working Memory and Reading,” Processing of Visible Language 1
(1979), pp. 355–370.
64
Charles C. Ragin, The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative
Strategies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
65
Jensen et al., “Contextualizing Disengagement.”
66
Simi et al., “Addicted to Hate”; Simi et al., “Narratives of Childhood Adversity and
Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism.”
67
Simi et al., “Narratives of Childhood Adversity and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to
Violent Extremism”; Pete Simi and Steven Windisch, “Why Radicalization Fails.”
68
Carolyn Turpin‐Petrosino, “Hateful Sirens…Who Hears Their Song? An Examination of
Student Attitudes Toward Hate Groups and Affiliation Potential,” Journal of Social Issues, 58
(2002): 281-301.
69
Markus Kaakinen, Atte Oksanen, and Pekka Räsänen, “Did the Risk of Exposure to Online
Hate Increase After the November 2015 Paris Attacks? A Group Relations Approach”,
Computers in Human Behavior 78 (2018): 90-97; Nele Schils and Lieven J. R. Pauwels,
“Political Violence and the Mediating Role of Violent Extremist Propensities”, Journal of
Strategic Security 9 (2016): 70-91.
70
See Donald Holbrook, “The Terrorism Information Environment: Analysing Terrorists’
Selection of Ideological and Facilitative Media,” Terrorism and Political Violence. Ahead of
Print; Donald Holbrook, Gilbert Ramsay, and Max Taylor, ‘“Terroristic Content”: Towards a
Grading Scale,” Terrorism and Political Violence 25 (2013): 202-223.
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In this paper, Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal attempt to conceptualise the extreme-right, in the context of its tendency to be overshadowed by the larger-scale, higher-casualty, Jihadism. As a result of this international and scholarly focus on Jihadist terrorism, the authors note the consequent deficit in research on the topic of violence and extremism from the extreme right-in particular, on target selection, perpetrators, patterns of action, and facilitating conditions. In an effort to begin to fill this gap, and thus improve practitioners' ability to deal with the threat, the authors bring into focus the distinctions between extreme-right violence and Jihadism. This Policy Brief concludes with recommendations on how relevant authorities can and should respond to this distinct form of political violence.
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The rhetoric of the far-right typically depicts women in tripartite archetypes: as beloved mothers or sex symbols for far-rightist men or, less commonly, as fighters for the cause. But the propaganda and speeches that produced these archetypes of women are largely produced by far-rightist men. Do they reflect the lived experiences of women in the far-right? And how do far-rightist women – and men – react to such rhetorical messages about the female role? This paper broadens our understanding of modern white supremacist groups by examining the experiences of its female members. We employ lenses of emotionality and embodiment to understand how women accept and resist group-level gender expectations in white supremacism. This is responsive to the broader goal in research on women in terrorism and political violence to specify how women act within and beyond ascribed gender-typical roles. Our extensive interview data allow us to provide a rich depiction of the integrated natures of the public and private lives of white supremacist activist women, adding new information about a population of women engaged in political extremism and violent organization about which little is known.
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This paper explores how obstacles to disengagement and push and pull factors combine to produce pathways out of extremism. Using Qualitative Comparative Analysis and a sample of 50 far-right extremists in the United States, including 25 who disengaged and 25 who did not, we show how certain exit barriers, like the presence of extremist family members, poor social mobility, and past criminal convictions, determine which push and pull factors are capable of assisting individuals in leaving extremism. We conclude with how these findings can be used to support intervention and reintegration programs.