The majority of research into Violent Online Political Extremism produced to date has focused on the online practices of violent jihadis. This is unsurprising given that jihadis have significantly grown their online presence since 9/11. Increasing numbers of individuals and groups that advocate violent jihad are known to be using the Internet extensively. Jihadis are not alone amongst violent political extremists in recognising the power of the Net.
According to EUROPOL, some 70% of all terrorism in the EU remains nationalist-separatist in orientation. Many of these ‘old’ terrorist groups have a significant online presence, but little to no academic research has been conducted on this to date. Other ‘old’ political groups that are in a renewal phase are the many variants of the European extreme right, which have a long history of Internet use, dating to the earliest days of the public Internet, and an even longer history of violence and threats of violence against non-whites, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, and others.
In short, the amount of online content promoting violent politics is increasing all the time and is not limited to purveyors of any one political ideology.
VOX-Pol thus seeks to broaden the scope of Violent Online Political Extremism research from a narrow focus on jihadis to the increasingly crowded violent online extremist scene.
The spread of Violent Online Political Extremism is also influenced by changes in the Internet landscape, both in terms of access and technologies. Large numbers of people have cheap and easy access to the Internet, particularly in the EU, where fast, home-based access is already widespread and growing. Mobile Internet access is also speedily becoming the norm, especially amongst youth, who increasingly go online using mobile telephones and other mobile devices. For these young people, the Internet is often their first port of call for background and information on topics with which they are unfamiliar or, indeed, for discussion and networking around topics with which they are. Violent extremists are aware of this trend and seeking to exploit it through the use not just of dedicated websites, but also by pushing out their content across the whole of the Internet, including via social networking. In this way, violent political extremists hope to reach a much wider audience than they previously had access to. VOX-Pol is therefore concerned to widen the scope of Violent Online Political Extremism research from dedicated Violent Online Political Extremism websites to consideration of these in conjunction with online social networking sites of various types, particularly those heavily trafficked by youth.
Research into violent online jihadism mushroomed after 9/11, but from almost nothing prior to that time, and with the effect of pushing research into other areas of Violent Online Political Extremism off the agenda. This whole area of research is thus still in its infancy and is therefore largely fragmentary, small scale, and lacking in empirical rigour, with many issues yet to be explored at all. The fast pace of online change is a factor here too. Consider that YouTube, which only came into existence in 2005, currently has 48 hours of video uploaded to it every minute and Twitter, launched in 2006, now accounts for 500 million tweets per day.
The basic assumption, shared both by violent political actors and policymakers, is that the Internet, and especially Web 2.0 applications, are making it easier for young people to find and consume violent political content and thus potentially to themselves become ensnared in violent politics, online and in ‘the real world.’ This was underlined by the case of Roshanara Choudhry, a British Muslim student jailed for life in November 2010 for attempting to murder a UK MP. Ms. Choudhry claimed she was radicalised after navigating from YouTube to a stream of extremist videos advocating violence.
The problem is that there is a dearth of empirical research exploring the role of the Internet in processes of violent radicalisation. There is an assumption that the Internet plays a part in some individuals’ radicalisation on the basis of self-reporting, but no large-scale, empirically-grounded, social scientific studies showing this to actually be the case or measuring the extent of the Internet’s role in such processes. This omission is important even if one believes that there is sufficient anecdotal evidence available to us at this stage to ‘prove’ the Internet’s role in contemporary violent radicalisation processes. Why? Because successful policy responses can only be crafted on the basis of sound long-term comparative interdisciplinary research and analysis, employing both qualitative and quantitative methods, that identify the factors involved in violent online radicalisation. Exploring the potential for and workings of violent online radicalisation is thus a core concern of VOX-Pol.
The open nature of the online radicalisation question has not stopped governments around the world from introducing legislation to tackle the assumed problem. Different governments treat Violent Online Political Extremism very differently however. In terms of broad brushstrokes, the US is generally viewed as having the most permissive online environment with authoritarian states, such as China or Saudi Arabia, having the least. The EU’s online environment is ‘moderate,’ lying somewhere between these two extremes. What is not open for contestation however is that there has been a concerted effort to crack down on Violent Online Political Extremism globally since 9/11 through everything from monitoring of Internet cafes to the outlawing of the online diffusion of bomb-making instructions.
Some commentators view this as a legitimate response to the threat of terrorism, others see things quite differently. The latter have concerns about the emergence of a ‘surveillance society’ where privacy safeguards are routinely breached in the name of national security and individuals’ rights to freedom of speech increasingly narrowed. The balance of privacy versus security is now weighted, many would argue, in favour of security as illustrated by some governments’ willingness to engage in wholesale surveillance of citizens’ Internet activities in pursuit of small numbers of potential wrongdoers.
One of the ways in which this has been made palatable to European citizenry it is suggested is through the utilisation of the same terms apparent in the discourse surrounding online paedophilia in the discourse of violent online radicalisation. This in turn invites us to ignore the political aspects of Violent Online Political Extremism in favour of condemning all such activity out of hand and acquiescing in the instantiation of the surveillance state in order to combat it.
Of particular importance to VOX-Pol therefore is the airing of a plurality of views with respect to Violent Online Political Extremism and surrounding issues. This includes providing a space for critical voices, to include critical scholars, activists, and others.