French president Emmanuel Macron presents a five-point plan to address Islamist radicalization. | Photo: picture alliance/dpa/MAXPP

Macron’s plan for fighting Islamist radicalization – and what Germany and other European countries should and shouldn’t learn from it

On October 2nd French president Macron presented a five-point plan to address Islamist radicalization. The long awaited speech sparked debates in France and beyond. In Germany, some called it “historic” and a “wake-up call”, demanding a similar set of initiatives and central speech for the German debate. This is problematic for two reasons: first, while many measures in Macron’s plan are promising, others and the overall framing of the speech can prove counterproductive in terms of stigmatization and securitization. Second, the French centralist approach cannot and should not be transferred to the German federal and civil society-based system of preventing extremism.

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Extremists use social media to spread hateful narratives and propaganda - state actors, NGOs, and young activists are trying to fight this by telling counter-narratives. But how effective is this? | Photo: PRIF

Counter-narratives – curse or blessing?

Taking stock of the increased spread of extremist narratives – especially in social media – the search for appropriate counter-measures intensifies. Consequently, the formulation and dissemination of so-called counter-narratives is often discussed as one possible approach to weaken extremist influence. While there are good reasons in favor of counter-narratives, they also come with risks and uncertainties. This article outlines essential pros and cons for their use in social media and provides insights into the current state of research on the effects of counter-narratives. Finally, it makes a proposal for a balanced approach: Counter-narratives may not be the only cure for extremism, but can serve as an effective tool for prevention and de-radicalization.

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The in-depth analysis of social media contributions within radicalisation dynamics of radical groups is a worthwile approach for radicalisation research. | Photo: Unsplash, Patrick Tomasso | Free use

Social Media as a Mirror of External Circumstances: Insights into the Perception of a Radical Group

Radicalisation processes take place in a field of tension between the actor and the outside world. External reactions and circumstances can have a supportive but also a rather negative and escalating effect on the dynamics of group development, depending on how they are perceived. Radical groups often react to circumstances in the outside world, incorporate them into their own discourse and provide their followers with a processed interpretation of them. This can be observed particularly well on social media. Within the scope of a thematic content analysis, we analysed how external circumstances were received within the community and what influence they had on the dynamics of the group Millatu Ibrahim.

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For security authorities, automated monitoring of social media is gaining increasing importance.
For security authorities, automated monitoring of social media is gaining increasing importance. | Photo: Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Early Warning? Opportunities and Limitations of Automated Internet Monitoring

Policymakers have invested considerable effort and research funding to understand the role of the Internet in radicalisation processes and attack planning. This includes approaches to identify radicalisation or “weak signals” for terrorist intentions in online behaviour. As a result, security authorities have become increasingly interested in approaches to computer science including Artificial Intelligence. Nevertheless, what results have research efforts thus far yielded? Can computer science prove useful? And what are the possibilities and limitations of automated tools?

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Das Foto zeigt die Webseite "Coronavirus - a soldier from Allah" auf einem Smartphone.
Extremists of all stripes reinterpret the Coronavirus pandemic to serve their ideologies. | Photo: PRIF

The Coronavirus as a Means to an End: Extremist Reinterpretations of the Pandemic

Various aspects of society and everyday life have become affected by the clampdown on the Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions enforced to prevent it from spreading. While the spread of COVID-19 continues to be fought and researched under extreme pressure, many uncertainties remain regarding its origin and the social, political and economic consequences. These uncertainties are easily exploited by extremists such as right-wing and Islamist extremists. The spread of the Coronavirus is thus accompanied by the propagation of extremists’ discourses. Within a short period of time, they reach thousands of people – not only but especially via social media. 

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Far-right sympathizers at a demonstration in Magdeburg
Far-right sympathizers at a demonstration in Magdeburg | Photo: _timl | CC BY 2.0

Far-right terrorism: Academically neglected and understudied

The terrorist attack in New Zealand which resulted in 50 deaths and multiple injuries is a bloody and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the far-right. The world has been scarred by an upsurge in far-right attacks, many perpetrated by lone actors. Yet, recent research has demonstrated that the far-right is dramatically understudied in comparison to other forms of violent radicalisation.

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Resistance is not terrorism
Resistance is not terrorism | Photo: neilward | CC BY 2.0

Warum wir nicht vom „Extremismus“ reden sollten

In der sozialwissenschaftlichen Debatte über Radikalisierung hat es sich – wie im politischen Raum – eingeschliffen, von Extremismus und Extremist*innen zu reden. Doch gerade wenn es darum geht, Prozesse zu verstehen, die in der Befürwortung von Gewalt und schließlich in Gewalthandeln enden, ist die Rede vom Extremismus nicht nur intellektuell unbefriedigend, sondern politisch fatal. Das Extremismuskonzept geht vielen in der Diskussion leicht über die Lippen, weil es unterschiedliche Entwicklungen zusammenfasst, die eine offene Gesellschaft in Frage stellen. Es schafft aber keinen Erkenntnisgewinn – und wirft eine Reihe neuer Probleme auf: die Rede vom Extremismus vernebelt den Blick auf gesellschaftliche Probleme, sie entlässt Akteure aus der Verantwortung, die in diese Probleme verstrickt sind und sie distanziert diejenigen, die mit Deradikalisierungsprogrammen erreicht werden müssen.

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