Online Radicalization in the United States
- 1 Online Radicalization in the United States
- 1.1 Online Radicalization to Violent Extremism
- 1.2 Definition of Online Radicalization
- 1.3 Context
- 1.4 Department of Justice Policy
- 1.5 The Role of Community Policing in Countering Online Radicalization to Violence
- 1.6 Resources
Online Radicalization to Violent Extremism
This entry focuses on how domestic and international extremists of all persuasions are using social media to promote their ideologies and what community policing strategies law enforcement can use to counter these efforts. This entry specifically examines online radicalization to violence ”the process by which an individual is introduced to an ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from mainstream beliefs toward extreme views, primarily through the use of online media.
Further research on the topic are available in the following papers:
- Radicalization into violent extremism: A review (by Borum)
- Online de-radicalization? Countering violent extremist (by Ashour)
- The trouble with radicalization (by Neumann)
Definition of Online Radicalization
Online radicalization to violence is the process by which an individual is introduced to an ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from mainstream beliefs toward extreme views, primarily through the use of online media, including social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. (1)
A result of radical interpretations of mainstream religious or political doctrines, these extreme views tend to justify, promote, incite, or support violence to achieve any number of social, religious, or political changes.
In many cases, online radicalization does not occur after viewing one video or reading one online post but happens gradually. The factors that influence a specific individual can change for him or her depending on the time or circumstance. Moreover, while the factors that influence radicalization differ from person to person, so too does the radicalization process itself. Individuals can move back and forth between stages or remain static while factors
and levels interact and influence one another.
Generally, as individuals immerse themselves in online extremist content, they begin to develop a skewed sense of reality in which their views no longer seem radical. Online interactions with like-minded individuals can substitute for an individual’s physical community and create an online social environment similar to that of a gang in which deviant behavior and violence are the norm.
Consumers of online extremist content can also develop or increase feelings of superiority, moral outrage, desensitization to violence, and willingness to commit acts of violence in furtherance of a particular cause.
The American public increasingly relies on the Internet for socializing, business transactions, gathering information, entertainment, and creating and sharing content. The rapid growth of the Internet has brought opportunities but also risks, and the Federal Government is committed to empowering members of the public to protect themselves against the full range of online threats, including online radicalization to violence. Violent extremist groups ─ like al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents, violent supremacist groups, and violent “sovereign citizens” ─ are leveraging online tools and resources to propagate messages of violence and division. These groups use the Internet to disseminate propaganda, identify and groom potential recruits, and supplement their real-world recruitment efforts. Some members and supporters of these groups visit mainstream fora to see whether individuals might be recruited or encouraged to commit acts of violence, look for opportunities to draw targets into private exchanges, and exploit popular media like music videos and online video games. Although the Internet offers countless opportunities for Americans to connect, it has also provided violent extremists with access to new audiences and instruments for radicalization.
As a starting point to prevent online radicalization to violence in the homeland, the Federal Government initially will focus on raising awareness about the threat and providing communities with practical information and tools for staying safe online. In this process, we will work closely with the technology industry to consider policies, technologies, and tools that can help counter violent extremism online. Companies already have developed voluntary measures to promote Internet safety ─ such as fraud warnings, identity protection, and Internet safety tips ─ and we will collaborate with industry to explore how we might counter online violent extremism without interfering with lawful Internet use or the privacy and civil liberties of individual users. This approach is consistent with Internet safety principles that have helped keep communities safe from a range of online threats, such as cyber bullies, scammers, gangs, and sexual predators. While each of these threats is unique, experience has shown that a well-informed public, armed with tools and resources to stay safe online, is critical to protecting communities.
Department of Justice Policy
From its website:
“Pursuing such an approach is also consistent with the community-based framework we outlined in Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States and the Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.
A New Interagency Working Group
To more effectively organize our efforts, the Administration is establishing a new Interagency Working Group to Counter Online Radicalization to Violence, chaired by the National Security Staff at the White House and involving specialists in countering violent extremism, Internet safety experts, and civil liberties and privacy practitioners from across the United States Government. This Working Group will be responsible for developing plans to implement an Internet safety approach to address online violent extremism, coordinating the Federal Government’s activities and assessing our progress against these plans, and identifying additional activities to pursue for countering online radicalization to violence. Raising Awareness through Existing Initiatives In the coming months, the Working Group will coordinate with Federal departments and agencies to raise awareness and disseminate tools for staying safe from online violent extremism primarily through three means. First, information about online violent extremism will be incorporated into existing Federal Government Internet safety initiatives. Internet safety initiatives at the Department of Education, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies provide platforms that already reach millions of Americans, and relevant departments and agencies will work to add materials related to online radicalization. The primary government platform for raising awareness about Internet safety is OnGuard Online, managed by the Federal Trade Commission and involving 16 departments and agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education.
OnGuard Online─ in addition to other Federal Government Internet safety platforms like Stop.Think.Connect and Safe Online Surfing─ will begin including information about online violent extremism. This information also will be posted on the Countering Violent Extremism homepage on the Department of Homeland Security’s website and updated to reflect new best practices and research. Second, the Federal Government will work with local organizations throughout the country to disseminate information about the threat. One reason for the success of Federal Government Internet safety awareness efforts is that they work closely with local organizations — such as school districts, Parent Teacher Associations, local government, and law enforcement — to communicate to communities. Law enforcement is a particularly important partner in raising awareness about radicalization to violence and is already developing materials with support from the Department of Justice.
Law enforcement departments and agencies have established Internet safety programs and relationships with community members and local organizations that can reach multiple audiences with critical information about the threat of online violent extremism and recruitment. Departments and agencies will provide the latest assessments of this threat to our local partners and encourage them to incorporate this information into their programs and initiatives. Third, departments and agencies will use our preexisting engagement with communities to provide information about Internet safety and details about how violent extremists are using the Internet to target and exploit communities. U.S. Attorneys throughout the country, who historically have engaged with communities on a range of public safety issues, are coordinating these Federal engagement efforts at the local level, with support from other departments and agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education.
U.S. Attorneys and others involved in community engagement will seek to incorporate information about Internet radicalization to violence into their efforts, as appropriate. At the same time, the Federal Government will engage with State, local, and tribal government and law enforcement officials to learn from their experiences in addressing online threats, including violent extremism. Going Forward As the Federal Government implements this effort in the coming months, we will continue to investigate and prosecute those who use the Internet to recruit others to plan or carry out acts of violence, while ensuring that we also continue to uphold individual privacy and civil liberties. Preventing online radicalization to violence requires both proactive solutions to reduce the likelihood that violent extremists affect their target audiences as well as ensuring that laws are rigorously enforced.”
How Extremists Use the Internet to Recruit and Radicalize
People and organizations worldwide have embraced the Internet because of its ease and
convenience. Individuals and organizations use the Internet to share photos and videos, post
news and press releases, raise money, and communicate with others. As access to
the Internet continues to spread, more people own Internet-enabled devices, and as the
use of social media proliferates, people are spending more time online, consuming
content from a variety of sources and creating virtual communities.
Violent extremists and criminal organizations are also exploiting this easy access to an
increasingly broad cross-section of individuals to recruit, groom, and facilitate radicalization
to violence. The Internet provides radical recruiters with a more fertile ground for
recruitment and more opportunities to interact with people who would not otherwise be
reachable by conventional means. Using a combination of traditional websites; mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube; and other online services, extremists broadcast their views, provoke negative sentiment toward enemies, incite people to violence, glorify martyrs, create virtual communities with like-minded individuals, provide religious or legal justifications for proposed actions, and communicate with and groom new recruits. (2)
Extremists post incendiary materials such as educational videos about how to construct explosives and operate weapons, videos of successful attacks, lectures espousing radical views, blog posts, and messages supporting and further encouraging attacks and acts of violence. For example, terrorist groups have used Facebook to exchange private messages and information to coordinate attacks and Facebook pages that individuals can “like” to show their support, have disseminated propaganda and press releases on Twitter, and have uploaded extremists’ sermons and training videos on YouTube. (3)
They have also used online message boards, chat rooms, and dating sites to meet and interact with one other and spread their messages. Creating profiles, pages, and accounts on various websites and social media platforms also allows smaller groups to appear as if they have achieved critical mass and are serious groups fighting for their particular cause. The ability to access the Internet from almost anywhere in the world also contributes to these groups amassing large followings and appearing more formidable.
The Role of Community Policing in Countering Online Radicalization to Violence
The number of cases of online radicalization is impossible to quantify, and the fact that it occurs online makes it harder for law enforcement to be aware of potential cases of radicalization to violence. In addition, law enforcement officers must remember that becoming radicalized online and posting, possessing, or espousing extremist views are not necessarily criminal activities. Under the First Amendment, individuals are granted freedom of speech, religion, and the press.
As long as these individuals do not partake in, conspire to engage in, or facilitate the engagement of acts of violence or commit other crimes in support of violent acts, individuals and groups espousing the most radical of views must be protected.
Therefore, law enforcement agencies should use community policing principles to address and counter online radicalization. Ways in which law enforcement and the community can work together to help identify, prevent, and counter online messages and activities that promote violent extremism include the following:
Engaging the community
Law enforcement can be a part of the solution by using one of the key components of community policing, citizen engagement. Traditional engagement has included identifying ways the community can get involved in addressing crime and disorder problems. Engagement also involves building trust, which in the past has included creating police athletic leagues in which community members play sports alongside officers and encouraging residents to attend citizen academies or go on ride-alongs.
Law enforcement agencies can also virtually engage their communities by creating their own social media accounts (4) through which they can interact with the community in various ways. For example, agencies can conduct virtual ridealongs in which the department can choose a certain time to post all the calls it receives, all calls of a certain type, or the activities of a specific officer or unit. Also, officers dedicated to countering violent extremism can post about the community events and meetings they attend and the people they interact with, and they can encourage followers to meet them at these public events.
Agencies can also use social media to conduct question and answer sessions during which community members submit questions via social media, and representatives answer them. Agencies can also link to the social media accounts of neighborhood watch groups and share these groups’ announcements and links on the agency’s page or account. This
recognition can help foster support for crime prevention, can be an effective way to solicit tips about unsolved crimes, and can improve law enforcement and community relations. (5)
Educating community members
Community policing also promotes the use of partnerships between law enforcement and the community to address public safety concerns. For example, many law enforcement agencies are already working with communities to address specific public safety concerns, such as online sexual predators, by educating youth and parents about how to recognize and report suspicious people and online activities.
Likewise, law enforcement, through its existing partnerships or through newly established partnerships with potentially affected communities, can help raise awareness of the threats online extremist recruiters pose. An agency can incorporate these warnings into its overall effort to educate communities about all Internet threats to their safety.
Source: The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice
- This definition of “online radicalization to violence” is a combination of the definitions for “Internetfacilitated radicalization” and “radicalization to violence” that can be found in: IACP Committee on Terrorism, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Working Group, A Common Lexicon (Alexandria, VA: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2012), theiacp.org/portals/0/pdfs/IACP-COT_
- Some of the activities and uses mentioned are not necessarily illegal and may be protected under the First Amendment and other civil rights laws. Each site allows users to block individuals from contacting them and to report content and accounts that violate a site’s terms of service. A site can remove any content that is determined to violate its terms, and users who post such content are subject to having their account suspended or removed.
- Gabriel Weimann, “Terror on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 16, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2010).
- For more information about how law enforcement can use social media sites, visit IACP’s Center for Social Media at IACPsocialmedia.org.
- Of the agencies using social media, 73.1 percent indicated that social media has improved police-community relations in their jurisdiction. See “2013 Social Media Survey Results,” (Alexandria, VA: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2013), iacpsocialmedia.org/Portals/1/documents/2013SurveyResults.pdf.