Law & politics

Radicalisation in the digital age

Jeffrey DeMarco Middlesex UniversityResearch Fellow in the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex, Jeffrey DeMarco explores the difficulties of preventing radicalisation via social media while ensuring users remain empowered.

As stories related to the so-called Islamic-State continuously flood our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, the power and significance of the digital world in both the perpetration and fight against terrorism becomes clear.  ‘Terrorism’, unlike information and communication technologies, is certainly not a new concept.  Originating from the Latin term for ‘to frighten’, societies as early as the first century utilised self-determined violence, or the threat of, in order to instil change within perceived political authoritarian hierarchies.

Although evolving in modus operandi over the subsequent millennia, much of the difficulties in its social embodiment and understanding remain the same. Particularly, the problematic nature of prevention, intervention and the lack of legal harmonisation make it a multi-faceted and complex issue, with the intersection of psychology, criminology, theology and political science all vying for explanatory control. With the increased use of technology in all aspects of our lives, the path leading to violent extremism has increasingly become an act of behavioural expediency.

‘Online disinhibition effect’

The proliferation of technologies across and within our social and individual lives has led to additions into the operational reality of extremism and radicalisation. In 2004, John Suler discussed the ‘online disinhibition effect’ in explaining how, in an age of constant technological and digital immersion, our behaviours have, and are, continuously evolving.  We are able to engage in the editability’ of our social portrayals to others; fine-tuning our strengths, attractiveness and weaknesses, tailor-making them to meet the specific presumed interests of other. With increased time spent online, we revel in the security of ‘anonymity’ and ‘invisibility’, remaining nameless and faceless behind the safety of our social media platforms and avatars, choosing when to both emerge and reveal ourselves to our cyber-public.

‘Asynchronicity’ alleviates embodiment within time and space, allowing social engagements and discussions to continuously flow and ebb; and a particular sensation of ‘escapism’ may lead to a feeling of disembodiment, and the disarmament of potential consequences as related to one’s actions. These factors, while not exclusive to the process of radicalisation, may be conducive to increased exposure to extremist rhetoric; an increased targeting for recruitment by violent extremists; and an increased likelihood of radicalisation through online mediums. Specifically, the concepts of propaganda, recruitment and radicalisation have been inherently altered as a consequence of technology use and availability.

Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)
Anonymous Account (Creative Commons 2.0)


Access to propaganda material is greatly facilitated through the internet and related ICT devices. Not only does the material come in a multitude of more desirable and accessible forms, such as blogs, chat rooms or online magazines, it can increasingly be utilised in a more directed, accessible and interesting way. Whether this is a flash game scoring points for killing Western characters or a Twitter account humanising ISIS, supporters will very much depend on the recruiter’s intention and the audience he or she is targeting. Regardless, globalisation and the death of media hardware, such as floppy disks and hand-held instruction manuals, has led to an increased number of attractive options for disseminating purposes to a diversifying group of recruits.

As recruitment continues to rely on cyberspace to reach as many like-minded individuals as possible, a process of exclusive and isolating discourse takes place. Using information often readily available through the target’s social media profiles, the recruiter will monitor discussions and select points of tension and pressure as information is shared between disinhibited digital citizens, empathising with problems they may face. Eventually, the vulnerable recruit will be led into more private forums within the internet, where shifts in conversations and the escalation of subject matter to geopolitics and foreign policy is tested and tried. Here, other ‘like-minded’ individuals, often multiple profiles of the same recruiter, are used to feign support, inclusion and reinforce extreme values, beliefs and morals –conditioning belongingness and a sense of purpose.

New identities

These networks will influence the newly recruited in structuring new elements of their identity. This identity will be bombarded by particular ideologies which, in a manner similar to grooming, or a process of sustained influence, will be highly attenuated to the dynamic shifts of global politics. Through quickened and constant cyber-exposure, the internalisation of shared grievances, both real and perceived, will enter the discourse of the sub-group. This can be about the current European migrant crisis and the treatment of in-group members at the hands of European security forces, or Western intervention in shared cultural and ethnic homes.

Restrictions on both user privacy and freedom of expression are dangerous tools to wield

Martyrdom will inevitably enter the narrative. The escalation of emotive wrongdoings can be a powerful sensation and, if these concepts are actioned, we have the event itself. The bomb. The shooting. The sensational act of violence instilling fear in the hearts of the public. The terrorist act is complete and the process of radicalisation has successfully been undertaken.

‘Wonderful and terrifying’

Moving forward, prevention is increasingly difficult. Cyberspace is a wonderful and terrifying milieu with innumerable combinations and permutations of opportunity. We want to empower users to explore, engage and interact, pursuing interests with like-minded others. Restrictions on both user privacy and freedom of expression are dangerous tools to wield, infringing upon some of our most basic and fundamental rights. Additionally, there is a disconnect between vulnerable people becoming radical and the security services, experts and professionals meant to protect the public. Being well-versed and fluent in the language of cyberspace and technology is of paramount importance in dealing with these issues and we must ensure that awareness and education are constantly evolving vis-a-vis the technologies being utilised.