Online extremism: the dangers and the psychology

Online extremism–through social media and other channels–is real and is very dangerous. The events of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the United States show that plainly.

We must all be better, more critical users of social media–if you choose to use social media. The overriding motivation of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, and other platforms is to drive user traffic to make money. Some social media outlets have imposed some limits based on violence and social upheaval in the United States and in other countries, but those efforts, so far, have been minimal.

When you use social media, take charge. Use social media selectively; do not let social media use you!


When you see information on social media that is important to you and has relevance for your life:

*Think twice before accepting the information as true

*If you do believe it is or may be true, verify the information through at least one additional, non-social media source (better yet, verify through more than one non-social media source).

*And, think four times before ever sharing, retweeting, reposting, liking, acknowledging that post or tweet in any way. That is exactly how online rumors and conspiracy theories start. It may be bots, agents of another country, extremists, and others who originate the information, but it is people like you and me who often unwittingly do their work for them and spread the posts, tweets, images, and videos widely.

Do not share, do not retweet!

Quick bibiography: the psychology behind online extremism.

Featured articles (these articles have been added to the Science Primary Literature database):

*Costello, M., Barrett-Fox, R., Bernatzky, C., Hawdon, J., & Mendes, K. (2020). Predictors of viewing online extremism among America’s youth. Youth and Society, 52(5), 710-727. [Cited by]

Exposure to hate material is related to a host of negative outcomes. Young people might be especially vulnerable to the deleterious effects of such exposure. With that in mind, this article examines factors associated with the frequency that youth and young adults, ages 15 to 24, see material online that expresses negative views toward a social group. We use an online survey of individuals recruited from a demographically balanced sample of Americans for this project. Our analysis controls for variables that approximate online routines, social, political, and economic grievances, and sociodemographic traits. Findings show that spending more time online, using particular social media sites, interacting with close friends online, and espousing political views online all correlate with increased exposure to online hate. Harboring political grievances is likewise associated with seeing hate material online frequently. Finally, Whites are more likely than other race/ethnic groups to be exposed to online hate frequently.”

*Costello, M., Hawdon, J., Bernatzky, C., & Mendes, K. (2019). Social group identity and perceptions of online hate. Sociological Inquiry, 89(3), 427-452. [Cited by]

Why do some people find online hate material more disturbing than others? We use a random sample of Americans between the ages 15 and 36 to address this question. Descriptive results indicate that a majority of respondents surveyed find online hate material very or extremely disturbing, while smaller shares find it moderately, slightly, or not at all disturbing. We utilize an ordinal logistic regression to explore factors associated with these varying perceptions of hate material. Results demonstrate that males and political conservatives find hate material less disturbing than females and political moderates or liberals. These results are expected, as online hate is largely dominated by right‐wing extremists who frequently target females and non‐conservatives. We also find that individuals who see hate material more frequently find it more disturbing, as do those who have been the target of hate or criminality online. Finally, individuals who are more accepting of violating social norms are less disturbed by online hate.”

*Costello, M., & Hawdon, J. (2018). Who are the online extremists among us? Sociodemographic characteristics, social networking, and online experiences of those who produce online hate materials. Violence and Gender, 5(1), 55-60. [Cited by]

What are the factors associated with the production of online hate material? Past research has focused on attributes associated with seeing and being targeted by online hate material, but we know surprisingly little about the creators of such material. This study seeks to address this gap in the knowledge, using a random sample of Americans, aged 15–36. Descriptive results indicate that nearly one-fifth of our sample reported producing online material that others would likely interpret as hateful or degrading. We utilize a logistic regression to understand more about these individuals. Results indicate that men are significantly more likely than women to produce online hate material. This fits with the broader pattern of men being more apt to engage in deviant and criminal behaviors, both online and offline. Other results show that the use of particular social networking sites, such as Reddit, Tumblr, and general messaging boards, is positively related to the dissemination of hate material online. Counter to expectations, the use of first-person shooter games actually decreased the likelihood of producing hate material online. This could suggest that violent video games serve as outlet for aggression, and not a precursor. In addition, we find that individuals who are close to an online community, or spend more time in areas populated by hate, are more inclined to produce hate material. We expected that spending more time online would correlate with the production of hate, but this turned out not to be true. In fact, spending more time online actually reduces the likelihood of doing so. This result could indicate that individuals who spend more time online are focused on a particular set of tasks, as opposed to using the Internet to disseminate hate.”

*Costello, M., Hawdon, J., Ratliff, T., & Grantham, T. (2016). Who views online extremism? Individual attributes leading to exposure. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 311-320. [Cited by]

Who is likely to view materials online maligning groups based on race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, political views, immigration status, or religion? We use an online survey (N = 1034) of youth and young adults recruited from a demographically balanced sample of Americans to address this question. By studying demographic characteristics and online habits of individuals who are exposed to online extremist groups and their messaging, this study serves as a precursor to a larger research endeavor examining the online contexts of extremism.

Descriptive results indicate that a sizable majority of respondents were exposed to negative materials online. The materials were most commonly used to stereotype groups. Nearly half of negative material centered on race or ethnicity, and respondents were likely to encounter such material on social media sites. Regression results demonstrate African-Americans and foreign-born respondents were significantly less likely to be exposed to negative material online, as are younger respondents. Additionally, individuals expressing greater levels of trust in the federal government report significantly less exposure to such materials. Higher levels of education result in increased exposure to negative materials, as does a proclivity towards risk-taking.”

*Hassan, 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. [Cited by]

“The main objective of this systematic review is to synthesize the empirical evidence on how the Internet and social media may, or may not, constitute spaces for exchange that can be favorable to violent extremism. Of the 5,182 studies generated from the searches, 11 studies were eligible for inclusion in this review. We considered empirical studies with qualitative, quantitative, and mixed designs, but did not conduct meta-analysis due to the heterogeneous and at times incomparable nature of the data. The reviewed studies provide tentative evidence that exposure to radical violent online material is associated with extremist online and offline attitudes, as well as the risk of committing political violence among white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and radical Islamist groups. Active seekers of violent radical material also seem to be at higher risk of engaging in political violence as compared to passive seekers. The Internet’s role thus seems to be one of decision-shaping, which, in association with offline factors, can be associated to decision-making. The methodological limitations of the reviewed studies are discussed, and recommendations are made for future research.”

*Hawdon, J., Bernatzky, C., & Costello, M. (2019). Cyber-routines, political attitudes, and exposure to violence-advocating online extremism. Social Forces, 98(1), 329-354. [Cited by]

“The Internet’s relatively unfettered transmission of information risks exposing individuals to extremist content. Using online survey data (N = 768) of American youth and young adults, we examine factors that bring individuals into contact with online material advocating violence. Combining aspects of social structure-social learning theory with insights from routine activity theory, we find that exposure to violence-advocating materials is positively correlated with online behaviors, including the use of social media platforms and the virtual spaces individuals frequent. Target antagonism is also correlated with exposure to violence-advocating materials, but guardianship and online and offline associations are not. Finally, feelings of dissatisfaction with major social institutions and economic disengagement are associated with exposure to violent materials online.”

*Johnson, N. F., Leahy, R., Restrepo, N. J., Velasquez, N., Zheng, M., Manrique, P., . . . Wuchty, S. (2019). Hidden resilience and adaptive dynamics of the global online hate ecology. Nature, 573(7773), 261-2,265A-265D. [Cited by]

Online hate and extremist narratives have been linked to abhorrent real-world events, including a current surge in hate crimes and an alarming increase in youth suicides that result from social media vitriol; inciting mass shootings such as the 2019 attack in Christchurch, stabbings and bombings; recruitment of extremists, including entrapment and sex-trafficking of girls as fighter brides; threats against public figures, including the 2019 verbal attack against an anti-Brexit politician, and hybrid (racist–anti-women–anti-immigrant) hate threats against a US member of the British royal family; and renewed anti-western hate in the 2019 post-ISIS landscape associated with support for Osama Bin Laden’s son and Al Qaeda. Social media platforms seem to be losing the battle against online hate and urgently need new insights. Here we show that the key to understanding the resilience of online hate lies in its global network-of-network dynamics. Interconnected hate clusters form global ‘hate highways’ that—assisted by collective online adaptations—cross social media platforms, sometimes using ‘back doors’ even after being banned, as well as jumping between countries, continents and languages. Our mathematical model predicts that policing within a single platform (such as Facebook) can make matters worse, and will eventually generate global ‘dark pools’ in which online hate will flourish. We observe the current hate network rapidly rewiring and self-repairing at the micro level when attacked, in a way that mimics the formation of covalent bonds in chemistry. This understanding enables us to propose a policy matrix that can help to defeat online hate, classified by the preferred (or legally allowed) granularity of the intervention and top-down versus bottom-up nature. We provide quantitative assessments for the effects of each intervention. This policy matrix also offers a tool for tackling a broader class of illicit online behaviours such as financial fraud.”

*Pauwels, L., & Schils, N. (2016). Differential online exposure to extremist content and political violence: Testing the relative strength of social learning and competing perspectives. Terrorism & Political Violence, 28(1), 1-29. [Cited by]

“The present study applies Social Learning (Differential Association) Theory to the explanation of political violence, focusing on exposure to extremist content through new social media (NSM) and controlling for key variables derived from rival theories. Data are gathered using (a) a paper-and-pencil study among high school students, and (b) a web survey targeting youths between 16 and 24 years old. A total of 6020 respondents form the data set. Binary logistic regression is used to analyze the data. Results show that even when controlling for background variables, strain variables, personality characteristics, moral values, and peer influences, the statistical association between measures of extremism through NSM (ENSM) and self-reported political violence remains significant and fairly constant. The most persistent effects are found for those measures where individuals actively seek out extremist content on the Internet, as opposed to passive and accidental encounters using NSM. Furthermore, offline differential associations with racist and delinquent peers are also strongly and directly related to self-reported political violence, as are some mechanisms from rival perspectives. This indicates that political violence can only partially be explained by social learning and suggests that the impact of ENSM is mediated by real-world associations and that the offline world has to be taken into account.”

*Winter, C., Neumann, P., Meleagrou-Hitchens, A., Ranstorp, M., Vidino, L., & Fürst, J. (2020). Online extremism: Research trends in internet activism, radicalization, and counter-strategies. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 14, 2,1-20. [PDF] [Cited by]

“This article reviews the academic literature on how and for what purposes violent extremists use the Internet, at both an individual and organizational level. After defining key concepts like extremism, cyber-terrorism and online radicalization, it provides an overview of the virtual extremist landscape, tracking its evolution from static websites and password-protected forums to mainstream social media and encrypted messaging apps. The reasons why violent extremist organizations use online tools are identified and evaluated, touching on propaganda, recruitment, logistics, funding, and hacking. After this, the article turns to the ways violent extremist individuals use the Internet, discussing its role as a facilitator for socialization and learning. The review concludes by considering the emergent literature on how violent extremism is being countered online, touching on both defensive and offensive measures.”

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