Cover: Countering Violent Extremism Online

Countering Violent Extremism Online

Understanding Adversity and Adaptation in an Increasingly Complex Digital Environment

Published Jun 28, 2023

by Joanne Nicholson, Sean Keeling, Marigold Black

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Research Questions

  1. What opportunities exist to enhance counters to VE online?
  2. Does VE online require different policy settings?

In this report, the authors seek to understand how violent extremists behave in an increasingly complex online ecosystem. This ecosystem, which is characterised by technological innovation and diversification of platforms, offers significant utility and advantages to violent extremists. By interrogating the variety of tactics and strategies being used globally, the authors have identified gaps in the understanding of the expansive contours of the violent extremism (VE) online landscape. The study highlights the extent to which these challenges require enhanced policy settings.

Violent extremists have learned to adjust their behavioural posture through a variety of tactical measures to evade common counters. Although law enforcement agencies are conscious of how enforcement and denial actions change behaviours, there will always be a trade-off between keeping extremists where they can be monitored online and deplatforming them to reduce potential harm. Some of the ongoing adaptations of violent extremists are illustrated in this report, using case studies and examples from a variety of different platforms. At the strategic level, the authors dissect the ways in which violent extremist networks engage across alternative-technology and mainstream platforms according to the opportunities afforded by each platform. Developing a greater, more detailed understanding of the online VE landscape is imperative because of the extraordinary proliferation of VE activity online.

Key Findings

  • Technological advancement, the ubiquity of the internet and the growth of online extremist activity change much about the dynamics of the extremist landscape and the ways in which extremism is both encountered and countered. Against this backdrop, there is a point of inflection at which this evolved version of VE might be countered.
  • VE exists as multiple complex ecosystems that transcend platforms. These ecosystems are widely accessible and host content that continues to be curated in a sophisticated manner, despite deplatforming measures.
  • A five-stage engagement model illustrates how violent extremists spread content and pull users into spaces where campaigners seek to reach, influence, cultivate, recruit and deploy users. VE campaigners inhabit each of these five different stages simultaneously and maintain access to all other parts of their network, organisational and broader movement content, and diverse and broad audiences that depend on their specific role. Simultaneously, the model identifies the area in which a user might transition from passive consumer to active participant. This area might not be accessible or vulnerable to the current variety of counters being deployed to combat VE.
  • Through the detailed thematic analysis of an expansive dataset of primary VE content, at least four distinct yet diverse patterns of behaviour can be distilled. These behaviours are practised in different ways and at different levels and form aggregate responses to or emerge from external and internal pressures.

Recommendations

  • Undertake further examination of the behaviours by VE actors in the online world. The five-stage engagement model and behavioural typology developed present a useful starting point from which VE behaviour online might be better explored.
  • Extend and test the typology of online behaviours to better understand how they change relative to observed ecosystem behaviour.
  • Identify minimum viable capabilities to maintain vigilance around evolving online VE, including consideration of policy and technology infrastructure.
  • Review existing analytical approaches to better understand violent extremist operational cycles.
  • Map racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism ecosystems against a variety of ideologically motivated violent extremism systems to determine their relative maturity and identify the likely trajectories along which the latter systems might progress.
  • Encourage collaboration between disparate groups across the national security landscape to improve situational awareness. The interplay and overlaps between terrorism, extremism, foreign interference, and misinformation and disinformation should be investigated.

Research conducted by

This work was sponsored by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and conducted by RAND Australia.

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