Youth radicalisation in the age of social media

Online/Offline Column by Nalaka Gunawardene

One of the most poignant reflections after the Easter Sunday suicide attacks came from Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, who has excelled as a lawyer, diplomat, and human rights advocate.

Speaking at a citizens’ vigil held at Independence Square on 4 May 2019, she said: “When I first heard the news, I was convinced that this was our violence, our people with grievances, (and) our people who have become angry and frustrated because of our mistakes. I was sure that this was a product of the acrimony that coexists with our intimacy. Though there are external factors, this focus on the local is still a valid concern. How did we create young men and women capable of such hate? What did we do or not do to make them receptive to hate mongering and delusion? They may have been radicalised outside our shores, but why did we, as a society, not know about their terrible hate and anger?”

Noting that many individuals in the Muslim community are engaging in introspection, she added: “But it is not only time for Muslim introspection. If we are going to call for introspection, we must ask everyone to do the exercise. How did we Tamils produce the LTTE? How did the Buddhists produce the BBS? How do we respond to extremism in all our communities? How do we make the voices for tolerance and inclusiveness speak out? How do we convince others that this calamity does not mean we forsake our democracy or our decency?” (Read her full speech at: http://bit.ly/421RC)

Difficult as they may be, such soul-searching questions need to be asked and their answers subject to the widest possible public discussion.


One related question that sociologists and other researchers need to investigate is the ways and means through which young men and women were persuaded to take part in such acts of hatred and destruction?

There is no universally accepted definition of radicalisation. The European Union calls it “the process by which a person comes to adopt extreme political, social, or religious ideas and aspirations that inspire violence or acts of terror”.

My interest in this column is where the online and offline spheres of human activity intersect, so I will focus on that. But it does not at all suggest that the internet and social media are the only or even primary vector in youth radicalisation.

First, a summary of what has emerged so far since the attacks. In recent days, investigations have revealed how the mastermind behind the bombings had radicalised young men through online platforms.

AFP reported on 3 May how the extremist preacher Zahran Hashim, Leader of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), used “social media to publicly call for the death of non-Muslims”, while he worked for months in private online chatrooms to persuade six young men to sacrifice themselves.

The French news agency quoted R. Abdul Razik, a leader of the moderate Ceylon Thowheed Jamaath (CTJ) group, as saying: “We believe Zahran radicalised these people using Facebook. Especially in the past year, he has been openly calling for the killing of non-Muslims.”

Hashim had uploaded some of his vitriolic sermons to YouTube as well. Following 4/21 attacks, the Google-owned video sharing platform moved quickly to remove all his videos.

Moderate Muslims had alerted the Police and intelligence authorities about these videos many months ago. Razik said: “We asked the intelligence agencies to take down the Facebook page of Zahran because he was polluting the minds of Sri Lankan Muslims. We were told it is better to allow him to have the page so that the authorities could keep an eye on what he was doing.”

Probing the nexus

In the coming weeks and months, Zahran Hashim’s life and brutal end – he was one of the suicide bombers – will be studied in detail by law enforcement officers and researchers alike. Critics of social media would probably cherry-pick on his use of these platforms.

How does social media lead vulnerable individuals to resort to violence?
Many in the Government and civil society seem convinced of a cause-and-effect link. This in turn has prompted online censorship, mass-scale electronic surveillance, as well as counter-speech (promoting “good” content to counter negative or destructive messages).

But what do we really know about the internet as a cause of radicalisation – and also about the impact of regulatory or educational reactions? What does research tell us?
This is what UNESCO, the UN agency monitoring information society issues from a human rights and cultural perspective, set out to find out in a recent global study.

It commissioned an international team of scholars to carry out a global mapping of research (done mainly during 2012-2016) into the “assumed roles played by social media in violent radicalisation processes, especially as they affect youth and women”. Such “research on research” is formally known as systematic reviews.

They looked at more than 550 published studies from scientific journals and “grey literature” (materials produced by organisations outside commercial or academic publishing), covering titles in English (260), French (196), and Arabic (96). Their analysis was published in 2017 as a UNESCO report titled Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media. (See: http://bit.ly/YouthRad)

After crunching findings from all over the world, the team didn’t find the proverbial “smoking gun” (pun unintended). They concluded that research is still in early stages, and urged caution about the results and their interpretations.

“The literature reviewed in the study provides no definitive evidence on a direct link between the specificities of social media and violentradicalisation outcomes on youth. Likewise, there is no definitive evidence about the impact of counter-measures,” their 2017 report said.

It adds: “Much is known about terrorist uses of the social media, but there is scant knowledge about the reception by users, specifically young people.”

What we do know

Violent extremists in different parts of the world use social media in sophisticated ways – mainly for propaganda, intimidation, recruitment, and fundraising. Of course, extremist groups existed well before these tech tools emerged. History of communications shows how extremists over the ages quickly found ways to use new technologies from telephone and radio to audio and video cassettes.

At the same time, the study recognises that social media’s key qualities – such as volume, speed, multimedia interactivity, decentralisation, cheapness, anonymity, and global audience across time and space – offer advantages to extremist groups that may otherwise have stayed marginal.

While highlighting the current gaps in empirical knowledge, the UNESCO team acknowledges that as a whole, research published thus far points to some “possible understandings”. These insights include the following:

· Rather than being initiators or causes of violent behaviours, the internet and social media specifically can be facilitators within wider processes of violent radicalisation.

· Actual violent radicalisation is a complex process and cannot be reduced to internet exposure. Instead, it entails social-psychological processes and person-to-person communication in conjunction with other offline factors (feelings of injustice, alienation, deprivation and anomie – which means the lack of usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group).

· The online representation of women and the constructions of masculinity in radicalisation are also factors to consider in the identity dimension of radicalisation.
One key point emphasised by the UNESCO study is that social media should not be considered separately from other media and from other factors linked with offline conditions, “even though online and offline dimensions become increasingly porous for young users”.

As Frank La Rue, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General, said in his foreword: “The phenomenon often referred to as ‘incitement to radicalisation towards violent extremism’ (or ‘violent radicalisation’) has grown in recent years. This is mainly in relation to the internet in general and social media in particular. This is despite it being immediately evident that other offline factors – including face-to-face communications, peer pressure, and false information – constitute more powerful forces, and are ignored at the peril of limiting our rights to freedom of expression if we focus only on the internet.”

So, what is the nexus between youth radicalisation and social media? As they say on social media on relationship status – “It’s complicated”.
Next week, we shall explore insights from the UNESCO report.

(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and critiquing information society for over 25 years. He tweets from @NalakaG)