This article summarizes a recent study published in Terrorism and Political Violence.
By Ryan Scrivens
Although there is an ongoing need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify and assess the online activities of violent extremists prior to their engagement in violence offline, little is empirically known about their online posting patterns generally or differences in their online patterns compared to non-violent extremists who share similar ideological beliefs particularly. Even less is empirically known about how their online patterns compare to those who post in extremist spaces in general. This study addresses this gap through a content analysis of postings from a unique sample of violent and non-violent right-wing extremists (RWEs) as well as from a sample of postings within a sub-forum of the largest white supremacy web-forum, Stormfront. Here the existence of extremist ideologies, personal grievances, and violent extremist mobilization efforts were quantified within each of the three sample groups (n = 3,000). Several conclusions can be drawn from this study.
First, a large proportion of ideological posts targeting the out-group were observed in the violent, non-violent, and comparison groups (see Table 1).
Table 1. Presentation of ideological posts across sample group.
This comes as little surprise, given that previous research has found that Stormfront – and indeed other platforms used by the extreme right in general – contain a sizable amount of explicit and overt white supremacist activity targeting the in-group’s perceived adversaries. The results of the current study also suggest that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were among the most frequently observed ideological discourse across all three sample groups, which also aligns with empirical research suggesting that anti-Semitic conspiracy discussions are rooted in RWE ideologies and in much of the RWE rhetoric expressed online, including in RWE discussion forums, social media sites, and fringe platforms. Interestingly, though, is that anti-government posts were among the most frequently observed ideological posts across all sample groups – a finding that contrasts with recent work which found that anti-government sentiment makes up a very small proportion of postings found on several RWE discussion forums. However, this finding aligns with other empirical research which suggests that RWEs oftentimes endorse anti-government sentiment and contributes to their underlying belief system. But perhaps most notable is that the non-violent group contained a much larger proportion of ideological posts than those observed in the violent group and, to a lesser extent, posters observed in the comparison group. Such a finding mirrors empirical research which similarly found that non-violent RWEs tend to be more active online than their violent counterpart in general. It may be the case that the non-violent group perceive their role in and, by extension, engage with the RWE movement as ideologues, thus providing “conceptual tools” that can be taken up by others involved in RWE violence, which has been reported in empirical research. Regardless, this evidence base remains in its infancy and requires further exploration.
Second, while few personal grievance posts were observed in all three sample groups compared to ideological posts, a larger proportion of personal grievances were observed in the non-violent and comparison groups than those in the violent group (see Table 2).
Table 2. Presentation of grievance posts across sample group.
There was also some variation in the scope of the personal grievances expressed across sample groups, with more grievance types identified in the non-violent and comparison groups than those in the violent group. Yet the most prominent personal grievances that were observed across the three groups were similar: (1) being the target of an act of prejudice, (2) the criminal justice system, and (3) the educational system. Most importantly, there was an especially small proportion of personal grievances observed in all three groups. This is a noteworthy finding because it suggests that RWE posters, whether violent or non-violent, tend not to express their personal grievances in generic RWE forums (such as Stormfront) as has been found to be the case in similar RWE forums. This finding does, however, align with research which similarly found a small proportion of personal grievance posts on violent RWE forums. Perhaps it is the case that online communities of extremist movements in general – and especially those that are open access and can be publicly viewed – are not spaces to air personal grievances, perhaps out of fear of being monitored by law enforcement and anti-racists, but instead serve as communities to express ideologically-based, in-group grievances (e.g., ZOG conspiracies) committed by perceived out-groups in general – as has been documented in previous research. Interestingly, though, is that notable exceptions in this regard include personal grievances about treatment of the criminal justice system and educational system. Perhaps some of the users in the current study who posted about this content believe that they are already being monitored by “the state” (i.e., law enforcement and the educational system, among others) and in turn see it as their duty to warn other RWE adherents as a result of their negative experiences with the system. Nonetheless, the extent to which personal grievances are expressed in RWE online spaces requires further exploration.
Third and perhaps most notably was the extent to which violent extremist mobilization efforts were observed in all three sample groups in general and in the non-violent group in particular. Although less frequent than ideological posts, much of the sentiment observed in the data, especially in the non-violent group, suggested that posters were preparing to engage in extremist violence or were making efforts to mobilize others to extremist violence (see Table 3).
Table 3. Presentation of violent extremist mobilization posts across sample group.
Interestingly, attempting to radicalize others and pushing others to action was the top mobilization indicator in both the non-violent and comparison groups, and the use of terrorist icons/flags/prominent figures/symbols/slogans was the top indicator for the violent group. These are indicators that law enforcement and intelligence agencies should look further into as they examine the posting patterns of users in extremist online communities – especially in spaces that contain such a high frequency of ideological posts, as was the case in the current study.
Together, the results of the current study suggest that the non-violent group, not the violent group, contain the more potentially threatening posting patterns that law enforcement and intelligence agencies may – on the surface at least – deem worthy of further investigation. Yet from a policy perspective, the results of the study suggest that analysts who are searching for signs of violent extremists online should perhaps be less concerned about investigating users who post messages that include numerous extremist indicators and instead be more concerned about those who post messages with fewer indicators. This recommendation is supported by recent work on the online behaviors of RWEs which found those who are actively involved in violent RWE activities offline tend to be concerned that law enforcement officials and anti-racist groups are monitoring their online activities and may modify their posting activities to avoid detection. Empirical research similarly suggests that violent members of RWE movements are largely clandestine, often paranoid because of the violence they engage in, and for this reason are concerned about revealing their identities. With this in mind, it may be the case that the violent RWEs in the current study were concerned that, by posting in an online space that can be publicly viewed, they may be putting themselves in a vulnerable position and could become the subject of an investigation from anti-hate watch-organizations or even law enforcement. This most likely had an impact on the content that they posted on the site and the results of the study in general. Nonetheless, in identifying violent extremists online based on their posting patterns, the results of the current study suggest that a useful starting place is to scrutinize the online activities of those who tend to incorporate terrorist icons/flags/prominent figures/symbols/slogans into their postings, particularly those that include popular RWE slogans (e.g., 14/88, HH). Research has similarly found a link between violent extremism and RWE slogans in the offline world, wherein it is common for such markers to be embedded in the practices of violent RWE groups. But little is empirically known about this link in the online world, which certainty requires further exploration.
Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University (MSU), an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre (ICCRC), and a Research Fellow at VOX-Pol. Follow him on Twitter @R_Scrivens.
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