Mgr. Jana Papcunová, The Institute of Social Sciences CSPS SAS, firstname.lastname@example.org
The online radicalization of youth is a highly topical issue, as evidenced by the current massive street unrest in Northern Ireland. Cars set on fire, attacks on the police are, according to the rioters, an expression of growing frustration in the pro-British unionist community at new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that resulted from Britain’s exit from the European Union. The major role also plays the non-compliance with anti-pandemic measures by the local politicians themselves. According to the BBC news portal, people aged as young as 12 to 13 are among the rioters, supported by watching adults who could be their parents. Facebook is flooded with videos where mostly young men throw petrol bombs, bricks, and other objects at police officers. Videos about a hijacked bus on fire and an attack on the Belfast Telegraph photographer dominate. The Police of Northern Ireland (PSNI) informs on its website and Facebook that the planning of protests takes place largely on social networks, calls on people to be more vigilant and calls for immediate reporting of possible 1) terrorist activity, e.g., suspicious behaviour, vehicles as well as 2) online material promoting terrorism or extremism e.g., suspicious websites, forums.
What are the factors that lie behind the radicalization of young people and how does the online environment contribute to this?
Today, the online environment offers unique opportunities for open and critical communication, but with it also come aspects of antisocial behavior, hate speech, extremism, and radicalization. The knowledge of the behavioral sciences in the digital environment is generally not very encouraging. Studies point to an association between the anonymous aspects of the Internet and antisocial behavior, where anonymous behavior relieves people of inner restraints that they would normally maintain regulated and in line with social norms and standards1.
In computer-mediated communication the self-disclosure is higher than in face-to-face communication, where visual anonymity and heightened private/reduced public self-awareness can lead to different types of behavior.2 It can lead to reducing our internal barriers, in extreme forms to circumvention of prohibitions, detachment. Studies also point to the aspect of deindividuation, i.e the belief that a person is not identified as an individual or as a member of a group – and since his aggressive behaviour cannot be identified, he cannot bear its consequences, which reduces his cognitive self-regulation3.
The situation around the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the already existing issues and social tensions in society. The digital environment is for many young people now the only means to obtain information, express thoughts, and emotions. However, this space also provides new opportunities for terrorist groups. Studies in the social sciences explore how the Internet and social media may, or may not, constitute spaces for exchange that can be favourable to violent extremism. The Internet’s role seems to be one of decision-shaping, which, in association with offline factors, can be associated to decision-making4.
Radicalization is a phenomenon defined by the European Commission as the acquisition of views and ideas that can lead to terrorist acts. It is the result of several factors that enter the lives of young people. Let us look at the individual factors that may be behind the online radicalization of young people.
- Individual risk factors – including psychological vulnerability, such as early experiences of abandonment, perceived injustice, and personal uncertainty. Some young people do not have a strong enough worldview, are not interested in politics at all, are disappointed in relation to current issues and political leaders and are more inclined to listen to simple ideas about how to solve complex problems.
- Micro-environmental risk factors – including dysfunctional families and friendships with radicalized individuals, frustration with the school they attend. Radicalization of young people occurs more often if parents, or (older) siblings are sympathizers of an extremist political party, resp. are its members; in families with accumulated problems (violence, conflicts) and in single-parent families in which children do not receive the necessary attention and support. Parenting styles also play a role here; while promoting for equality – where everyone is equal regardless of origin – can be a protective factor, the authoritarian style and lack of sensibility can be a risk factor for the radicalization of young people.
- Social risk factors include geopolitical events and social change. The starting point for radicalization is the often a growing perception of injustice and inequality in society, the unreliability of politicians/people. Due to the expected economic recession and growing uncertainty in society in recent months, the radicalization of young people in the digital space is an even more topical issue5.
Protests and riots by radicalized youth in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland, with the lowest level of educational attainment in Europe, seem to have stopped following the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Friday 9 April. The question remains as to exactly what is behind the violence in the streets of the country, how does the country’s “lockdown” due to pandemic Covid-19, school closures, post-Brexit sentiment and young people, who are considered “always online” contribute to this unrest.
Parents are likely to play the most important role in preventing young people from radicalizing online. Any changes in behaviour, shifts in attitudes, alterations in interests, sudden changes in personality or behaviour, including becoming more isolated, talking from a script, or becoming more religious are all signs that a child is at best struggling with their beliefs, and at worst in the process of being radicalized. An advanced understanding of technology is not necessary to protect children from online dangers. However, parents should try to find out about the sites and platforms their children visit online and should explore the Internet with their children from an early age. But that does not mean that it is a responsibility borne by families themselves. The school plays an important role, where it is necessary to focus on digital education, support of digital literacy, optimal use of information and communication technologies, but also on pointing out the existence of social prejudices and stereotypes in society, working with at-risk groups of young people, using discussions online or offline.
Science also plays an important role here, which could fill the gap in the research of online extremism and radicalization of young people in Slovakia by emphasizing its social aspects. This could be a rich source in fulfilling the goals by the Slovak government currently approved “Concept of Combating Radicalization and Extremism until 2024”6.
1Reicher, S. D., Spears, R., & Postmes, T. (1995). A social identity model of deindividuation phenomena. European review of social psychology, 6(1), 161-198. doi:10.1080/14792779443000049
2 Festinger, L., Gerard, H. B., Hymovitch, B., Kelley, H. H., & Raven, B. (1952). The influence process in the presence of extreme deviates. Human Relations, 5(4), 327-346. doi:10.1177/001872675200500402
3Vilanova, F., Beria, F. M., Costa, Â. B., & Koller, S. H. (2017). Deindividuation: from Le Bon to the social identity model of deindividuation effects. Cogent Psychology, 4(1), doi:10.1080/23311908.2017.1308104
4Hassan, G., Brouillette-Alarie, S., Alava, S., Frau-Meigs, D., Lavoie, L., Fetiu, A., … Sieckelinck, S. (2018). Exposure to Extremist Online Content Could Lead to Violent Radicalization:A Systematic Review of Empirical Evidence. International Journal of Developmental Science, 12(1-2), 71–88. doi:10.3233/dev-170233