Social media has become a potent tool for spreading extremist beliefs and promoting violent extremism. NIJ Social Science analyst Aisha Javed Qureshi joins writer-editor Paul Haskins for a conversation about how scientific research is helping law enforcement and other agencies understand and address this growing concern.
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PAUL HASKINS: Welcome, everyone. I'm Paul Haskins, a Writer/Editor for the National Institute of Justice and your host for today's show. I'm talking with Social Science Analyst Aisha Qureshi of NIJ about the role of social media in violent extremism in America. Aisha manages the domestic radicalization and terrorism portfolio at NIJ. One of the portfolio's areas of focus is causes of radicalization. That is how and why people in the United States radicalize and how radicalization can lead to terrorism. Her portfolio has examined the de-radicalization process as well. Aisha, thanks for joining our program. Let me ask you, generally speaking, is there a connection between the emergence of social media technology in this century and the emergence of domestic radicalization and violent extremism?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Thank you, Paul. First of all, I'd like to say thanks for having me on the show today and for highlighting work from our portfolio. It's, you know, great to be with you. So just to answer your question, unfortunately, research shows that social media has become a leading avenue for spreading extremist beliefs and promoting violent extremism. First off, it's just so far-reaching, right? It allows extremist groups to reach a broad audience that may be amenable to an extremist belief or ideology. These are folks who either already hold extremist beliefs or are new recruits who may be encountering an extremist ideology for the first time. But either way, they're easily accessible by extremist recruiters because of the internet and social media. And then to add to that problem, right, extremist websites present a challenge for law enforcement agencies because the individuals and groups behind extremist social media can be elusive and difficult to identify. They're often anonymous, right? So just to put it in perspective, we have a 2017 NIJ-funded study where researchers interviewed 32 former extremists or their family and friends of former extremists. And it found that 22 of the 32 cases described consuming propaganda during radicalization, mainly from online sources.
PAUL HASKINS: Wow. That sounds very concerning. So Aisha, how do domestic extremists gain the trust of and motivate seemingly ordinary Americans on the internet with such a violent and hate-filled messaging?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Well, their stock-in-trade is deception, both in terms of the false information and the rumors they spread and the false sense of legitimacy they seek to instill in their recruits. More recently, this phenomenon has been coined as MDM, right, Mis-, Dis-, and Malinformation, which is information that's false, false and deliberately created to discredit an entity, or information that's based on reality but it's used to ignite hatred or inflict harm.
PAUL HASKINS: Why don't you describe for our audience the organizations that tend to be vulnerable to violent extremism influenced by social media?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Well, you know, actually, the trend is that domestic terrorists more often tend to be lone actors and small groups rather than members of, like, larger organizations. And one reason for that, and we know this from the research, is that extremist organizations have targeted them online with material to provide a sense of belonging and fulfillment that they've never experienced, even though it's a false sense of belonging.
PAUL HASKINS: Very interesting. Do lone actors and small groups of extremists pose a special challenge for law enforcement agencies?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Oh, definitely. Smaller groups or lone actors can engage in solitary and often really rapid mobilization to violence. And that presents a complex challenge for law enforcement, right, and others like their peers or family members trying to understand them and stop them. So yeah, it's harder to detect them. There's less time to intervene.
PAUL HASKINS: So I'm thinking that it might be fair to say that domestic radicalization and extremism are really a product of contemporary social media. Is that fair?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Well, not in the sense that radical extremism is a new phenomenon, no. It's important to note that, you know, domestic extremism and violence have a long, if limited, history in our country. So for example, after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan used a campaign of terror to intimidate Black voters. The bombing of a Black church in Birmingham in the 1960s during the civil rights movement was a terrorist act. More recent terrorist incidents include a car fatally driven into a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the killing of three people at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Texas. So many past domestic terror events predated the internet and social media obviously. But today's radical extremism threat has this powerful digital component that can really accelerate recruitment and activate violence across a broader threat landscape. Just the sheer volume and speed of misinformation spread through social media really exacerbates this problem.
PAUL HASKINS: So from your knowledge of the literature, Aisha, what are some of the main motivations for social media activity influencing domestic radicalization?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: So the intelligence community has concluded that biases against minority populations and against government will likely drive domestic violence, extremism and mobilization to violence in the near term. Of course current and future events, both at home and abroad, are going to continue to shape the threat landscape.
PAUL HASKINS: That's all very interesting. And I'm wondering if you could tell me what is the role of scientific research in helping law enforcement and other agencies understand and address the connection between social media influencers and violent extremism?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Sure. So NIJ is an agency that solicits and funds scientific research on domestic extremism for the benefit of law enforcement and other justice system agencies, right? So the science is very important because it provides reliable, data-driven knowledge that applies in the real world and helps law enforcement and other agencies fight domestic terrorism even before it happens. So for example, recent studies supported by NIJ have identified and profiled domestic extremist groups online. They've looked at how certain social media sites radicalize users to violence. They've examined how different criminology theories help explain extremist behavior online. And they've also looked at radicalization on the internet over a five-year period, for example. And so that research and other studies help us understand the motivations and vulnerabilities really of potentially violent extremists and how websites impact them and possible ways to intervene in that process.
PAUL HASKINS: Why don't we discuss some of that work?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Sure.
PAUL HASKINS: First, the project titled “Radicalization on the Internet, Virtual Extremism in the US from 2012 to 2017.” I understand this research is set out to identify extremist groups active online and to create virtual profiles of those groups.
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Mhmm.
PAUL HASKINS: What did it find in those areas?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. This study tried to help us better understand how violent domestic extremist groups and individuals use the internet and how people who are exposed to this extremist material get impacted or influenced by it. And this research team first identified active online extremist groups based in the US and created virtual profiles, so to speak, of these groups by learning about their grievances and characteristics; things like the group's mission and what tactics they advocate for.
PAUL HASKINS: That’s interesting, Aisha. Were there other findings that stand out in the study on radicalization on the internet?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: They found that men are significantly more likely than women to produce online hate material and that men are more apt to engage in deviant and criminal behaviors both online and offline. Some other results show that the use of particular social networking sites, such as Reddit, Tumblr and general messaging boards, is positively related to the dissemination of hate material online. In addition, they found that individuals who are close to an online hate community are more inclined to produce hate material.
PAUL HASKINS: Yeah. So that makes sense that proximity to an online hate community would make one more inclined to produce hate material. Would you expect, Aisha, that spending more time online would result in more hate activities?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: They expected that spending more time online would correlate with the production of hate, but this turned out not to be true. In fact, spending more time online actually reduces the likelihood of doing so. And this result could indicate that individuals who spend more time online are focused on a particular set of tasks, as opposed to using the internet to disseminate hate.
PAUL HASKINS: Interesting. Were there any findings on extremist groups negatively stereotyping other groups of people?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. They found that hate groups use stereotypes. They place blame and direct hatred towards specific groups of people who they believe are the cause of their or their country's problems. They also found that identity plays a major role in fueling hate. Whether that it's just to associate with a hate group or to perpetuate hate towards another group that identifies in a particular way either politically, racially, you know, religiously, or based on sexual orientation. So ultimately, hate groups use stereotypes and place blame without supporting evidence.
PAUL HASKINS: Now that study also examined the impact of online hate or extremist materials on individuals. What did it find, and which types of material were more influential?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: So the research team then collected three waves of data through surveys and that was in 2015, '16, and '17. And a thousand people were surveyed in each of these three waves to better understand the extent to which people are exposed to extremism and hate online and how they react to it.
PAUL HASKINS: So could you talk a little bit about the outcome of that work?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Sure. So the research resulted in the identification of risk factors that are associated with encountering hate material online. So for example, the study found that spending more time online using particular social media sites, interacting with close friends online, and espousing political views or grievances online all correlate with increased exposure to online hate. And again, that's just emphasizing that it's increased exposure to hate material, not production.
PAUL HASKINS: So I'm wondering, did that research reveal anything about how demographics affect exposure to online hate?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. The study did shed some light on how demographics are related to the potential for exposure to extremist content. So, some of the findings showed that white Americans are more likely than any other race or ethnic group to be exposed to online hate frequently. Conversely, the results demonstrated that African-Americans and foreign-born respondents were significantly less likely to be exposed to negative material online, as are younger respondents. They also found that individuals expressing greater levels of trust in the federal government reported significantly less exposure to such materials. And they also found that those who live in the southern region of the U.S. are nearly three times as likely to be targeted by hate related to sexual orientation, while those living in rural areas are more than twice as likely to face such targeting. So lots of very valuable findings from the study about how extremist groups operate and sort of who is at most risk of exposure to extremist content.
PAUL HASKINS: Interesting. So those are significant regional differences. Now I know there was a study by Michigan State University that assessed extremist groups' use of web forums, social media, and technology. What did that study learn about web forums' role in the evolution of violent domestic extremism?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. So essentially the researchers in this study set out to study how online communication is used by extremist groups to promote their agendas, to radicalize members and encourage violent and terrorist acts. So they reviewed over 1600 posts derived from seven web forums operating online buy-in for individuals with an interest in the ideological far-right, both in the U.S. and in other countries. And the findings, surprisingly, don't show any consistent trends in posting behaviors related to violent incidents by far-right actors. Actually, the users expressed beliefs on a variety of topics, including gun rights, conspiracy theories, hate-based sentiments, and anti-government beliefs. But none of these beliefs were discussed equally across the forums. The only sentiment that was found to be the most common was the anti-African-American sentiment.
PAUL HASKINS: Were there any insights from that research on the impact of web exposure on how ideological or radicalized users became?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Definitely. I mean, the researchers also found that as time went on, participants became, to some extent, more ideological and that associating with others who share similar beliefs contributed to more radical beliefs over time. And the social network analyses component of the study suggests that far-right forums have very low network density. And that suggests that there is a degree of sort of information recycling, if you will, between key actors. So often, individuals choose to participate in forums as a means to simply express pre-existing beliefs rather than have beliefs change as a function of participation in an online community.
PAUL HASKINS: So that phenomenon, the need to express pre-existing beliefs, did that facilitate the movement of any new information?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Ironically, these redundant connections between actors may slow the spread of new information between the key participants. As a result, these forums, these echo chambers, if you will, may be inefficient in distributing new knowledge due to their relatively insular nature.
PAUL HASKINS: So what were some of the main takeaways from that research?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. So we discovered some really interesting findings through this study, and the authors actually suggest, based on the results they found, that there may be some value in increasing counter-extremist messaging in online spaces whenever an act of violence may occur, in order to help potentially minimize the likelihood of further retaliatory violence.
PAUL HASKINS: That’s a very intriguing concept: the possibility of using online messaging to counter extremist messaging on the internet. Next I'd like to talk a bit about project about offline and online pathways to hate crime and terrorist violence. What was that about, Aisha?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. So this was a large study, but a portion of it explored similarities and differences in the use of social media by political extremists and individuals who engage in hate crimes to better understand how the two radicalization phenomena differ.
PAUL HASKINS: And how did they do that?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Yeah. To do that, the research team selected 52 individuals from varying extremist ideologies who engaged in successful or failed acts of violence or fraud in furtherance of an ideological agenda from two comprehensive databases, the PIRUS and the ECDB. So PIRUS stands for Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the U.S. And ECDB is the Extremist Crime Database. The sample focused on cases occurring primarily after 2007, to align with the timeline of the rise and the growth of social media as a whole.
PAUL HASKINS: What a powerful resource. What were some of the key findings there?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: The authors found that the most common platform used in the sample was Facebook, which is in keeping with general patterns of social media use overall for that time. They found a greater number of far-right actors with Facebook accounts than any other extremist, and found that Twitter use was slightly higher among radical Islamists than far-right actors. The use of forums and personal websites was found only in far-right and far-left extremists.
PAUL HASKINS: So what does that suggest to you?
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Well, the researchers' analysis suggests that patterns of social media use vary across ideological groups and actually closely reflects the general use of these platforms within the larger U.S. population. It also suggests that the use of platforms may be indicative of the interests and backgrounds of the perpetrators. So for example, limited use of LinkedIn may be due to the general differences in the professional background of these actors. And similarly, the limited use of Snapchat for example, may be due to the fact that it emerged more recently and has a much younger user base.
PAUL HASKINS: Well, all of that research is incredibly interesting. And it's so important to our understanding of, and the justice system's ability to, identify and prevent extremist violence in our nation. Thank you, Aisha Qureshi, Social Science Analyst with the National Institute of Justice and our guest today.
AISHA JAVED QURESHI: Oh, thanks so much for having me on the show, Paul. I'm really glad we got a chance to cover this topic, especially because everyone always says that so much radicalization happens online, right? But I think it's also really important to understand the nuances of that online radicalization process in an era, especially post-COVID, where we're increasingly relying on digital communication, right? So I'm glad we were able to chat about it and also really glad that NIJ was able to fund some really amazing work in this area. So thank you.
PAUL HASKINS: I want to thank all of our audience members for tuning in. And please stay tuned for more episodes from the National Institute of Justice.
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