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Examining the Association Between Social Media and Violent Extremism: A Social Learning Approach

NCJ Number
Shradha Sahani
Date Published
84 pages

Noting that some traditional theorists posit that learning only occurs in face-to-face contexts, the current study considers that the elements of learning described in social learning theory may also be present in social media online.


This study used the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) to examine the relationship between exposure to social media during radicalization and engagement in violent extremism, defined as “the psychological, emotional, and behavioral processes by which an individual or group adopts an ideology that promotes the use of violence for the attainment of political, economic, religious, or social goals.” The analysis examined 1) whether political extremists with social media exposure during their radicalization are more likely to engage in violent extremism compared to other ideologically motivated political extremists, and 2) whether political extremists with exposure to a social media platform using personalization algorithms are more likely to engage in violent extremism compared to other ideologically motivated political extremists. Using a set of logistic regressions to test the association between exposure to social media and personalization algorithms and violent extremism, this study found that 1) exposure to social media and to personalization algorithms correlates positively with violent extremism, and 2) the relationships among exposure to social media, personalization algorithms, and violent extremism are explained by age, foreign-fighter status, and the year of extremist behavior. The implications of these findings for theory, future research, and policy are discussed. 8 tables, 1 figure, and an 80-item bibliography