Social networks and violent extremism: a focus on prevention

The debate about radicalization and violent extremism is a never-ending one. It is not seen as a national problem of a specific country, but a worldwide dilemma in which both state and non-state stakeholders are busy with finding proper interventions. Violent extremism can only survive if it has enough active members and who are committed. In general, mobilization such as recruitment of new members is defined as the act of requesting people to join voluntarily for a particular purpose(s) and/or value(s). From a psychological perspective, the person must see the event as a favourable outcome in order to reinforce this particular response (the behaviour of engaging in itself). The Internet provides an opportunity for violent extremist groups to get out their enough-appealing messages.

Different initiatives aim to prevent and to counter violent extremism by trying to increase the social cohesion and by influencing individuals’ decision-making process –especially youth– to voluntarily modify their behaviour. As countries are looking for ways to prevent violent extremism in a more effective fashion, greater research efforts are being made to determine why and when individuals engage into violent extremism, and what measures should be taken in order to prevent such engagement. For instance, behaviour change is broadly used in public health with a focus on prevention and is being used in different programs related to prevention of violent extremism.

Figure 1. Twitter was commonly used by ‘Aaron Driver’ –ارون درايفر–­ to the extremist propaganda. Today, the account is closed.

Propaganda is a well-known technique that is used by violent extremist groups where they are designing specific messages that are sort of being “manipulative” and out of the context. Such type of false attribution is used to reflect some manipulated meaning and is commonly used in the process of recruitment and it is appealing and with authoritative.

Figure 2. An example of a tweet which contains a video hosted in Vine.

Recruitment and radicalization

In Sociology, a violent extremist group constitutes a social network, but also family members ­–the tribe–, friends and co-workers. Gerwehr & Daly (2006), in a book entitled ‘Al-Qaida: Terrorist selection and recruitment’ stated that a recruiter will attempt to weaken community bonds in order to get someone to join (for example, by emphasizing dissatisfaction with economic and job conditions as unemployment or poverty, or the issue of social injustice). Moreover, a leaked report from the British Mi5 Intelligence Service entitled ‘Understanding radicalisation and violent extremism in the UK’ seen by The Guardian in 2008, states that ‘in most cases, personal interaction is essential to draw individuals into violent extremist networks’.

Figure 3. British Mi5 ‘leaked’ report

A social network consists of a set of persons and different relationships that exist between them. Its analysis aims at understanding the network structure by description, visualization and statistical modeling in which a set of actors and their ties or relationships are analyzed. It can be noted that social network analysis provides both a visual and a statistical analysis of human relationships. In the paper entitled “Social networking data analysis tools and challenges” by Sapountzi & Psannis (2016), it was outlined that social network analysis is an interdisciplinary field of study which demands expertise from different areas.

Thus, the key is to determine who are the key players in violent extremist networks in order to prevent future unwanted events. But also, efforts to analyze a recruitment network process will need to measure, within a given population, who is at risk, who is likely to join, and who is likely to participate in violent extremism. For example, software implementation for social network analysis is found in Ucinet by Analytic Technologies and i2 Analyst’s Notebook by IBM.

A focus on prevention but not on countermeasures

From a psychological point of view, prevention efforts should be directed to strengthen or preserve social networks by doing the outcome of joining a violent group less rewarding. Therefore, the behaviour becomes less probable.

An approach that is not only looking at fighting to violent extremism around the world but is about preventing people from taking up violent extremism in the first place is needed in order to build sustainable peace and security. For example, alternative narratives that are directly or indirectly challenging extremist propaganda by discrediting and de-legitimizing the extremist messages and provides an alternative. By Luis Alcaraz

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