By Robert Örell
How do violent right-wing extremists exploit the online space?
Violent right-wing extremists (VRWE) use the online space to spread their ideology and to reach vulnerable individuals to recruit online. The online platforms operated by extremist groups oftentimes help these vulnerable youngsters form new relations and build a new identity online. They report feeling empowered by these platforms, feeling seen, heard, and important. They feel part of a community where they matter and are supported, at least in the beginning. These types of online communities usually build a strong sense of “us and them” where other people and groups outside are seen as bad, deceitful, unreliable, and inferior or threatening.
Sometimes the recruitment is direct with clear messages, but more often it is discrete and covert. Such recruitment can start with an invitation to a closed chat group that appears in an online game community, or with a link invitation to a closed forum. From there the messages slowly become more explicit propaganda and recruitment.
It´s also a common strategy to post funny memes and images in online forums with subtle messages that have an influence on participants´ views over time. The more extreme examples are groups or individual sympathisers that explicitly propagate committing violence.
The current global Covid-19 pandemic affects us all and feelings of fear and uncertainty have increased. In combination with the various measures taken to prevent the spread, many people find themselves isolated searching for a community and for answers to understand what is going on and how to cope with the current situation. Violent extremist groups of all types provide their version and ideas to frame the current crisis, spreading narratives in form of conspiracy theories and fake news. Most importantly, they offer a community to vent and to discuss the pressuring situation as well as a platform to promote ideas on how to change the current society into what they propagate as a better one.
Why do practitioners need to work online?
It is important that practitioners become aware and understand the importance of online work in preventing and countering violent radicalism.
For many young people, the online world has become just as important as the offline and they spend a considerable amount of time consuming videos, connecting with other people on social media and searching for news and information.
The online world is not a vacuum without consequences or responses in the offline world. The online world of VRWE has inspired numerus violent attacks all around the world. The perpetrator of the Christchurch attack in New Zealand inspired the perpetrator of the Baerum Mosque attack in Norway. A high number of lone wolf perpetrators reference other lone wolf terrorists as inspiration for their own attacks.
Violent extremist groups exploit isolation and a sense of powerlessness. Practitioners need to be present in spaces where the vulnerable youngsters spend their time.
In recent years practitioners have addressed the role of online gaming as a recruitment forum for violent extremists’ groups. By inviting young gamers to closed chat rooms, the young person feels special and chosen to be part of the new group. In these unrestricted virtual environments, recruitment has happened relatively undisturbed and sometimes over a longer period of time.
What can practitioners do online?
A reoccurring theme when former members of violent extremist groups describe what helped them change and leave is the formation of meaningful, authentic connections outside of the group. This is also one of the main goals when operating in an online space.
Classic EXIT work can be offered online. With effective advertising strategies the online service can reach individuals who are motivated to make a change. Similar to the offline work, practitioners establish rapport and focus on individual needs.
Another approach to online EXIT work is to provide an online community similar to online self-help groups. Such initiatives provide a secure and closed forum where clients can meet virtually and support each other in their disengagement process.
It is all the more important that online strategies and practices are being developed in preventative work. Similar to offline practice, trained social and youth workers engage with youngsters but they do their work in online forums and social media platforms. Authenticity and honesty about the role of the practitioner as well as modelling constructive online behaviours are important.
In all types of online work with clients specialised training is necessary for practitioners to have the relevant internet and media literacy, and understand the theoretical and technical aspects of online safety, confidentiality and anonymity.
An important element of all approaches is the ability to connect clients with offline services if needed. These services include psychotherapy, psychiatry, legal advice, study advisory centres, job centres, social work, tattoo removal salons and so forth.
How can practitioners do it?
It is important that practitioners get sufficient training to understand the strategies and tools extremists use to recruit and radicalise. In addition, they need training in the legal, technological, ethical and privacy-related aspects of online work.
Knowledge can be drawn from already existing online counselling literature. Relevant material and information has been collected and published by the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) working groups RAN Youth & Education and RAN Families & Communities covering, for example, youth work in a Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism context, how to address different topics, advice on conversation techniques, and so on.
Are there any good examples of innovative approaches?
This is a developing field and we can expect more practices to emerge. An inspiring preventative practice has been developed by the French Web Walkers. In their proactive approach, professionals reach out to young people, communicating and interacting through blogs, chats and forums, creating bonds and encouraging a critical mindset.
An example from the realm of online intervention is the North American organisation Life After Hate. Their Exit USA programme offers online EXIT support services including online mentorship provided by formers as well as trained mental health professionals.
Robert Örell has over eighteen years of experience working on disengagement from political extremism and family support at Exit Sweden and Exit USA. He is a Director of Transform, an NGO dedicated to capacity building and training. Watch Robert’s TED talk on this topic, ‘TEDx: A Way Out From Violent Extremism’.
This article is republished with permission from the May 2020 edition of Spotlight magazine, titled ‘Violent Right-Wing Extremism In Focus’. Spotlight is a new publication from the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network for RAN’s network of practitioners.