Research financed in the framework of the BMBF’s public security programme is still predominantly occupied with two issues: “online-radicalization” and “international terrorism”. The emphasis on „international terrorism“ still leads to an exclusive focus on “Islamist terrorism” and completely ignores the discussion of and a stronger need for research on right-wing terrorism. The emphasis on “online-radicalization” on the other hand misses the importance of also looking at the offline dimension of any phenomena under investigation.
Research shows importance of considering the nexus
In an interview with the BMBF Martin Kahl pointed to the fact that both Jihadi-Salafist and extreme right collective actors use a combination of both online and offline communication as a strategy to mobilize their ideological supporters. He refers to empirical findings showing that those actors apply different goals to their communication in both dimensions to pursue their aims. In a previous blog post of this series, Hande Abay Gaspar discovered a similar phenomenon describing how Salafist groups combine online and offline media not only to recruit new members but also to maintain the group.
While Abay Gaspar and Kahl speak about research on strategies of mobilization in their examples, we can also draw some conclusions about an impact of those actors on the broader public from similar research. In particular, these findings match with further empirical findings, which evolved from the BMBF-funded PANDORA research group.
Online-offline nexus as an approach for the PANDORA research group
As a general approach, our research group stressed that the nexus between online and offline behaviour of the collective actors under investigation needs to be in focus from the very beginning. This approach was informed by the identification of a gap when speaking about research on online radicalization, including the impact of social media: Previous research indicates that merely focusing on one dimension of communication – online communication being only one of several possible levels – misses a big part of the whole picture of what a (collective) actor actually does.
Thus, instead of putting a particular or even exclusive focus on the online dimension, we argue here that it is important to concentrate on the nexus of both, and as a consequence – or starting point – on the actor. The PANDORA research group has focused on collective actors in two phenomena, extreme right and Salafist-Jihadism, and their actions in both online and offline dimensions as well as the nexus between their online and offline behaviour and impact in relation to their publicly known goals. For groups or individuals that can be counted among the Salafist spectrum in Germany, Hande Abay Gaspar and Manjana Sold have already given their insights. In this post, I will stress my argument of concentrating on the nexus between the online and offline dimensions in research by giving insights from our project on collective actors of the extreme right spectrum. One of the questions we tried to answer was about how successfully these actors mobilize for demonstrations against or violent acts in the context of “the summer of immigration” (2015). We examined how actors of the extreme right in five local studies (Altena, Northern Rhine-Westphalia; Burg, Saxony-Anhalt; Goettingen, Lower Saxony; Kempten, Bavaria; Nauen, Brandenburg) in Germany appear both offline and online. We identified those collective actors in various ways: above all, the monitoring list “Mut gegen rechte Gewalt” on extreme right violent acts provided by the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and Pro Asyl, media research on extreme right violent acts or in the context of local or regional events, online and offline ethnography including interviews.
Impact of actors online and offline may differ
In each of these local studies, we found significant proof of the existence of active extreme right structures. More importantly, we found proof of gains of right-wing collective actors when examining how successful those actors are in claiming public spaces by scaring away minority groups or the inhabitants of a particular town in general. However, we also found that the actors we investigated “offline” were often not the same we identified on social media. We estimated the online dimension of their action through the appearance of extreme right public groups on social media, frequency of posting in these groups and number of comments to these posts. Our findings show that transregional or nation-wide organized groups are very powerful online, rather than local or regional groups, while offline it was usually the other way around. However, actors in both categories tried to exploit local events to mobilize “normal” citizens for their purposes, and almost all of the groups we observed tried to exploit the issue of asylum as a means of mobilization. However, transregional or nation-wide organized groups are far more successful in this. One reason may be that the readership of their public groups in social media is not limited to locals. Another reason may simply be the degree to which the two kinds of collective actors have resources at their disposal to maintain both online and offline activities or whether the minor appearance of local structures online is simply a matter of concentrating on the resources they have.
In this context, the explicit research focus on the online dimension of an (collective) actor’s behaviour is problematic for yet another reason. The example just given matches with various findings from previous research on “filter bubbles”, and it shows that it is hard to estimate the actual impact of an actor’s online communication offline and vice versa.
Focus on the actor, not the medium of communication
Two arguments for thinking offline and online as a nexus were already raised in previous blog posts: Manjana Sold described the offline references individuals make in their online profiles, and Hande Abay Gaspar examined how Salafist groups combine online and offline means for mobilization – an observation we can confirm as a means of extreme right actors as well. In conclusion, I would like to add a third argument to this, resulting from our findings: the gap between activities in the online and offline dimensions we discovered for extreme right collective actors does not mean that they are not successful in pursuing their goals – one of which clearly is to influence public and political discourses on migration and asylum. This means that concentrating on only one of the dimensions may lead to missing a significant part of the whole picture. There is a danger of overestimating the impact of one collective actor – but at the same time underestimating the impact of yet another.