Extremism increasingly spread via mainstream apps and sites, government research finds

MoJ-backed study concludes that specialist sites and the dark web are no longer the only means of online radicalisation

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Those convicted of extremism-related offences are increasingly radicalised via mainstream websites and apps, government-backed research has found.

A new report – written by two academics and an official from HM Prison and Probation Service – finds that “all mainstream social media and file-sharing platforms have been touched by extremist activism to some extent”.

The study, which was compiled using data on nearly 500 people convicted of extremist offences in the last few years, found that the process of radicalisation “now takes place primarily online”.

Among its key findings was a growing trend for this to happen via generic online platforms – rather than specialist sites or private messaging channels.

“The types of websites, platforms and applications used by convicted extremists [has] changed over time, with a steady decline in use of specific extremist websites [and] homepages and standard communication applications [and] platforms, and an increase in use of forums [and] chatrooms, open social media platforms and encrypted applications,” the report said. “Use of the dark web was reported infrequently.” 

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The research noted that, when compared with those radicalised via non-digital means, those who were radicalised online were “more likely to generate their own extremist propaganda and use open social media platforms”, and their offences were more likely to have been confined to the online world. They also tended towards lower levels of engagement with extremist causes and less willingness to commit violence, and were also more likely to display signs of mental illness, personality disorders, or neurodivergence, the research found.

The researchers provided the MoJ – and its executive agency, HM Prison and Probation Service – with six core recommendations, the first being that the online world “should remain a key focus of counter-terrorism efforts”.

Attention should be paid, in particular, to “emerging platforms and applications”, as well as adopting “multi-platform responses” that encourage greater transparency from tech firms.

Those thought to be most at risk of online radicalisation could be given more specialist help for depression, personality disorders, and autism spectrum conditions, as well as “support during transitional periods in their life”.

The offline activities of anyone “identified as [a] potential extremists should be closely monitored” and, finally, specialists dedicated to interventions “should consider risk and protective factors across individuals and contexts, with consideration also given to diversionary solutions at point of sentencing, or potentially at point of arrest, for those active solely online and considered as having a peripheral role”.

The research was compiled by Jonathan Kenyon of HMPPS, alongside Jens Binder from Nottingham Trent University and Christopher Baker-Beall from Bournemouth University. The trio’s latest report builds on research conducted last year.


Sam Trendall

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