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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The PANDORA research group gained interesting insights into the nexus of online and offline radicalization processes.
The PANDORA research group gained interesting insights into the nexus of online and offline radicalization processes. | Photo: Peakpx | Free use

The Great Divide? The Online-Offline Nexus and Insights from Research on the Far-Right in Germany

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.

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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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To belong to a social group is attractive, esp. to young people
To belong to a social group is attractive, esp. to young people | Photo: markusspiske | Free use

Salafist Groups’ Use of Social Media and its Implications for Prevention

Researchers largely agree that radicalisation processes mostly include both real-world and virtual conditions. However, the interaction of both spheres has so far been understudied. Still, too little is known about how the two environments are mutually dependent and, accordingly, even less about how prevention and deradicalisation approaches can cover both spheres. In the previous article, Manjana Sold highlighted that while studying social media profiles, linkages to the real world are observable. This blog argues that this also occurs the other way around: Based on results from in-depth case studies, the article shows how radical Salafist groups in Germany use the benefits of social media to attract new members and facilitate the maintenance of the group. From these findings, possible starting points for prevention and deradicalisation work will be derived, which, if possible, cover both spheres of life.

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It is not easy to tell where offline ends and online begins
It is not easy to tell where offline ends and online begins | Photo: widenka | Free use

The Amalgamation of Virtuality and Reality in Radicalisation Processes

Virtuality has long since become an integral part of the world we live in today. It is thus not surprising that the virtual world is also used by those already radicalised and those who are in the midst of a radicalisation process. Accordingly, recent years have seen an increase in research that is particularly interested in the online component of radicalisation processes. Although the majority of researchers agree that there is no pure online radicalisation and that real-world contacts are always an important part of the process, research often continues to be one-sided. This posts calls for a change of focus by considering both spheres as equal components to the process and by examining their interactions. Findings from online case studies stemming from social media profiles of Salafist and right-wing individuals illustrate the amalgamation of online and offline radicalisation.

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Far-right "fashwave" memes aim to make neo-Nazism accessible and appealing through contemporary aesthetics | Photo: Youtube

The Visual Culture of Far-Right Terrorism

The recent wave of far-right terrorist attacks challenges academic knowledge on extremist violence and demands a new perspective. Rather than acting on behalf of political organizations, most of the perpetrators promote digital hate communities that predominantly interact via visual language such as memes. These images, which are often-humorous, aim to accustom users to violence and make neo-Nazism accessible and appealing through modern aesthetics and pop-cultural references. Hence, to fully understand contemporary far-right terrorism and its underlying worldviews, we need to systematically analyse visual mobilisation and persuasion strategies. This blog post makes the case for a visual culture perspective and transdisciplinary visual analysis to examine how far-right actors radicalise sympathisers in loosely organised online networks.

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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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In Brennpunkten wie dem Bahnhofsviertel ist die Polizei Tag und Nacht auf der Straße zu sehen | Photo: Martin Krolikowski | CC BY 2.0

Der Frankfurter Polizeiskandal: Über Sicherheitsbehörden, Rechtsextremismus und die Notwendigkeit einer Fehlerkultur

Die Frankfurter Rechtsanwältin Seda Başay-Yıldız und ihre Familie erhalten seit mehreren Monaten Morddrohungen im Namen eines „NSU 2.0“. Offensichtlich nutzen die Täter dafür nicht-öffentliche Informationen aus einem Polizeicomputer. Eine kritische Öffentlichkeit verlangt Aufklärung und das Bekanntwerden weiterer rechtsextremer Vorfälle in Sicherheitsbehörden wirft die Frage auf: Haben wir ein strukturelles Problem? Die Polizeiforschung zeigt indes: die Problematik ist nicht neu und sowohl der institutionelle Umgang als auch gesellschaftliche Umstände begünstigen extrem rechte Tendenzen. Helfen kann nur eine konsequente Fehlerkultur.

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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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