‘Abstract Radicalization’ Online – Not Necessarily Groomer-Led

So-called groomers are not always responsible for terrorist radicalization. ‘Abstract Radicalization’ could well be the main driver in some cases of overt violent extremism, as it can be of underlying processes generating hate. This is not always acknowledged, for reasons of perception, although there is online material which, per se, is impersonal and abstract in nature. This article also points out that the spheres of reality and the virtual interlace.

1) Perceptional Difficulties

There have been discussions for years stating that radicalization is a largely offline process or that, in almost all cases in which acts of terrorism have been committed, living persons had previously groomed people into violent extremism. This is not necessarily true.

More and more often, the internet plays a role in radicalization into terrorism. Even when an offender claims that he or she had been recruited by a person online, it may be the case that this person was represented by a recording, i.e. by a static media designed for a wide audience and not tailored to the situation and character of the individual person.

It may also be so that the person that a vulnerable individual saw as a person of authority or a role model was over-emphasized in the eyes of the individual. Either when he or she was later questioned by the authorities, or according to witnesses statements. This is because perception was such in hindsight, or because we always tend to think in persons – even where a subject-matter is largely non-personal. It may even be that the individual person (or group, for that matter) was solely radicalized by abstract ideological material available online (see last paragraph).

2) Online and Offline – A False Binary

Most things on the web these days have come to bear initially offline references. The web even replaces offline elements. The internet incorporates the latter, and it permeates the analogous world in the sense that we cannot imagine life without the online and the virtual. Hence, the internet is not only complementary to what used to be “the real world,” it takes elements of the old world and converts them, making them its own.

Of course, we cannot live without the non-internet world. But the world consists so much of online elements, i.e. PCs, smartphones, and digital creations, that we cannot and should not create a false binary opposition between the online and the offline. This goes so far as to the extent that the internet can replace much of what used to be exclusive to the offline world.

3) ‘Abstract Radicalization’

When it comes to radicalization, not only are there static videos and other statements designed for a larger audience or segments of society, As they become media, these statements are not identical with groomers making statements, although their function can be to groom. But there is also purely abstract material. This may be the case with pseudo news produced by extremist groups. For instance formats by the Islamic State (Daech) or Al-Qaeda.

It may even be sufficient for vulnerable individuals to consume abstract ideological, impersonal material, to be radicalized. This should be further investigated by researchers. For instance, selective hadith along with false, radical interpretations of traditions are media elements that can groom, but, notably, without there being a groomer. Such interpretations, while originally formulated by persons, sometimes centuries ago, are predominantly abstract, often archaric texts in writing, sometimes transformed into audio or video that, by way of online posts, become part of the contemporary, online sphere of the world as such.

4) Online: A New And Different Quality

As they are media texts, the formats have a different quality than ‘real-life’ (?), offline grooming which takes part in a live setting and requires knowledge and psychological skills. Although media of that sort can also be interactive, they need not be. They can be largely abstract and static, for example parts of tafsir, i.e. interpretative books on the Islamic religion, sometimes written in times of exception and which are not valid in today’s world, contrary to established, peaceful traditions.

It will and should be subject to further academic research to find out to what extent ‘abstract radicalization,’ as opposed to groomer radicalization, actually played, and continues to play, a role in hate and violent extremism. There is also the question of how to class chat bots. Do they represent abstract information? Or are they virtual groomers? Another question would be whether living trolls, often simply repeating abstract phrases, are to predominantly be seen as part of the ‘real world’ or rather of the virtual world. In any case, their existence is only made possible because of, not to say thanks to, the internet.

5) Conclusion

There is much reason to believe that groomers are not the only, or else not always the primary, drivers of online radicalization, and that the consumption of abstract online material can, in and out of itself, lead to radicalization, hate, and even violent extremism. For reasons of anthropomorphism, difficulties in perceptional differentiation and attributional emphasis, and because many are still used to thinking in terms of the pre-internet world, this view has not been the most popular among P/CVE academics and practitioners.

Research is yet to be done to determine in how far abstract radicalization plays a role in the unfortunate occurrence of terrorist events, or the preparation thereof. This requires some amount of digital literacy, as well as an update of existing data. If we do not ask whether factors others than groomers played a role in the radicalization of terrorist perpetrators but only which groomers did, we cannot discern between abstract radicalization, on the one hand, and personal radicalization, on the other hand.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
April 2020

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