Geo-Economics and Politics

Is the internet really more effective at radicalizing people than older media?

Image:  Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Andrew Berkley
Lead, Immersive Technology and Content, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Researchers have now been studying the internet’s role in radicalization for decades.
  • The World Economic Forum created a visualization of radicalization in the US over a 70-year period.
  • The visualization illustrates the expanded role of internet use in fostering extremism.

Gavrilo Princip was 19-years-old, impressionable and increasingly alienated as his political views grew more extreme.

By the time he arrived in Sarajevo to assassinate the heir to the throne in an empire of more than 51 million people and alter the course of modern history in 1914, he’d been radicalized via a means available for millennia – newspapers.

The internet is certainly far from the first medium used to foster extremism. But it seems to be uniquely effective.

Among the individuals profiled in PIRUS, a detailed database of people in the US who were radicalized, social media played a role in the process for 27% of them between 2005 and 2010. That increased to 73% between 2011 and 2016.

A report submitted to lawmakers in Australia cautioned that the threat of right-wing terrorism is increasing during the pandemic due in part to social media, and the UN has warned that right-wing terror groups are using the health crisis to radicalize and recruit online – it noted a 750% increase in anti-Semitic tweets as the outbreak began, amid escalating hate crimes against people of Asian descent.

Authorities in the US have been arresting an average of three defendants per day on charges related to the insurrection at the Capitol in January. Many will plead that they were duped by baseless claims about election fraud amplified on social media.

The mother of one woman charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds said her daughter had taken a sudden interest in “far right message boards,” according to court documents. The woman allegedly used a group-chat app recently valued at $12 billion to boast that she’d stolen a computer from the Speaker of the House during the melee.

The Forum has used PIRUS data to create a visualization of radicalization in the US from 1948, when the first live nightly news broadcast appeared on TV, to 2018, well into the internet era. In the excerpt below, people radicalized over the years by far right (red dots), far left (blue dots), and Islamist groups (yellow dots) are represented by location.

Image: World Economic Forum

TV remains a potent means of manipulation. But the internet may be an algorithmic, personalized upgrade. Its role in radicalization has now been researched for more than two decades; one study published earlier this month found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm regularly suggests videos with misinformation and hate speech that violate company policies.

In the visualization excerpt below, white dots represent the locations of people entered into the PIRUS database over the years who were radicalized through the internet.

Image: World Economic Forum

One study published earlier this year sought to delve deeper into anecdotal evidence of the internet’s role in radicalization; it found that “beheading” videos were the most sought-after jihadist material online among young people in Belgium, but also the material least predictive for radicalization. The conclusion: it might not be the internet that radicalizes people, as much as general moral disengagement.

Still, pressure has mounted on social media sites to crack down. Facebook recently provided a glimpse of a related effort that asks users if they’re concerned someone they know is becoming an extremist – and provides a link to “get support.”

In the visualization excerpt below, white dots represent the locations of people entered into the PIRUS database over the years who were radicalized through Facebook.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The rise of right-wing extremist groups that thrive online prompted a shift in the language used to identify terrorist threats in Australia, according to this analysis – though the bland nature of that new language raises concerns about bowing to the conservative side of politics. (Lowy Institute)
  • Inmates detained at the same jail for their role in the US Capitol insurrection regularly sing the national anthem “loud and proud,” according to one who has bragged during a recorded Zoom call about being armed during the assault. (ProPublica)
  • A Belgian soldier disappeared after being implicated in weapons theft and threats to kill the country’s top pandemic virologist, according to this analysis. It didn’t take long for a Facebook group supporting him to attract more than 50,000 members. (The Conversation)
  • “It’s ironic, if you think about it.” This study suggests that in order to prompt people to make the right choices and resist extremist messages, it might actually be best to stress their autonomy by telling them they’re free to accept or reject them. (Science Daily)
  • Radicalization in America requires a new plan, and according to this analysis the current administration’s approach – based on two decades of studying radicalization in the internet era – is a welcome change. (Harvard Kennedy School)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Internet Governance, Peace and Resilience, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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