The term has often been used to describe a specific kind of radicalization — that of young Muslim men who are inspired to take violent action by the online messages of Islamist groups like the Islamic State. But as it turns out, it isn’t just violent jihadists who benefit from the internet’s power to radicalize young people from afar.
White supremacists are just as adept at it. Where the pre-internet Ku Klux Klan grew primarily from personal connections and word of mouth, today’s white supremacist groups have figured out a way to expertly use the internet to recruit and coordinate among a huge pool of potential racists. That became clear two weeks ago with the riots in Charlottesville, Va., which became a kind of watershed event for internet-addled racists.
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“It was very important for them to coordinate and become visible in public space,” said Joan Donovan, a scholar of media manipulation and right-wing extremism at Data & Society, an online research institute. “This was an attempt to say, ‘Let’s come out; let’s meet each other. Let’s build camaraderie, and let’s show people who we are.'”
Ms. Donovan and others who study how the internet shapes extremism said that even though Islamists and white nationalists have different views and motivations, there are broad similarities in how the two operate online — including how they spread their message, recruit and organize offline actions. The similarities suggest a kind of blueprint for a response — efforts that may work for limiting the reach of jihadists may also work for white supremacists, and vice versa.
In fact, that’s the battle plan. Several research groups in the United States and Europe now see the white supremacist and jihadi threats as two faces of the same coin. They’re working on methods to fight both, together — and slowly, they have come up with ideas for limiting how these groups recruit new members to their cause.
Their ideas are grounded in a few truths about how extremist groups operate online, and how potential recruits respond. After speaking to many researchers, I compiled this rough guide for combating online radicalization.
Recognize the internet as an extremist breeding ground.
The first step in combating online extremism is kind of obvious: It is to recognize the extremists as a threat.
For the Islamic State, that began to happen in the last few years. After a string of attacks in Europe and the United States by people who had been indoctrinated in the swamp of online extremism, politicians demanded action. In response, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other online giants began identifying extremist content and systematically removing it from their services, and have since escalated their efforts.
When it comes to fighting white supremacists, though, much of the tech industry has long been on the sidelines. This laxity has helped create a monster. In many ways, researchers said, white supremacists are even more sophisticated than jihadists in their use of the internet.