James Halverson, Senior Faculty Specialist
U.S. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism
This warning in January 2021 about the far-right extremism in the United States and Russia by a member of the National Academy of Sciences team suggests possible new priorities in future U.S.-Russian exchanges on security-related issues.
Terrorism has represented a rare area of shared security interest between the United States and Russia since September 11, 2001; and exchanges between U.S. and Russian scholars on issues of terrorism has shown to be a durable forum for security dialogue, even when formal diplomatic relations have been strained. At the time of this writing, however, the United States faces rising far-right domestic extremist movements, some of which threaten to engage in concerted anti-government violence. This shift does not provide the practical basis for U.S. and Russian counterterrorism alignment that transnational religious terrorism once did; but it does raise many questions about processes of radicalization, around which continued scholarly exchange can be oriented.
Violence perpetrated in service of extreme nativist and ethnonationalist ideologies has represented the dominant form of terrorist violence in the United States for the last decade. Data also suggests that per capita, homicides committed under far-right political motives have been even more common in Russia over a similar time frame. Although the far-right terrorist threat is real in both countries, the different cultural contexts and political implications in each country limit the productivity of international dialogue
that focuses on its manifestations. Instead, a focus on the mechanisms of radicalization and their evolution in the internet age might offer common points of interest and understanding, to which separate national experiences and a wider range of disciplines can be brought to bear. Exchange on this topic might also serve interstate stability, given the dangerous capacity for online mechanisms of domestic radicalization to be harnessed as tools of interstate competition.
From the American perspective—having witnessed political polarization occur with incredible scale and speed in recent years—the current radicalization problem requires new examinations of human behavior and information technologies; but most critically, it demands better understanding of the ways these two aspects interact on a societal scale. As someone young enough to be considered a “digital native” but also old enough to remember the bright predictions made in the infancy of the internet about its potential to be a connecting force, I feel comfortable asserting that the general effect of the internet on societies in the early 2020s is not toward richer dialogue or greater inter-demographic understanding. Instead, the social dimensions of the internet, collectively dubbed “social media,” constitute a distributed broadcast medium that primarily promotes declaration.
Of course, such a medium can and does have many positive impacts. In reality, however, it is also proving to be full of perverse incentives encouraging of greater social tribalism. In a social environment where each individual is a broadcaster, dialogue is rare. What dominates instead are contests for attention. In this environment, sensational, controversial, and extreme content is the easiest way to win attention. As in terrorist violence committed to win attention, the extreme is continually normalized and motives for escalation and outbidding emerge. Simultaneously, the underlying machinery of social media platforms is designed to maximize usage time and activity by learning users’ preferences and steering them toward compatible content. The effect of this is the accretion of users into ideologically homogeneous orbits that are capable of drifting far from the mainstream while remaining largely unaware or unappreciative of their collective drift. Finally, owing to the accessibility and the addictive qualities of social media platforms, they create vicious cycles whereby the more content users generate, the more capable their corner of the internet is of dominating their awareness. Compounding the problem, individuals who are already at higher risk of radicalization due to economic or social deprivation may be the most prone to envelopment in radicalizing online echo chambers.
In the United States, it appears that these processes have significantly accelerated political polarization. They have also proven capable of pulling partially compatible but previously disconnected groups—like militant ethnonationalists and extreme conspiracy theorists—together and collectively toward greater radicalization. At the time of this writing, it is not clear if these enlarged extremist environments online will translate into a correspondingly elevated period of political violence. There are many warnings that it will. It is possible that the abundant availability of attention online will supplant some of the impetus to commit spectacular acts of terrorism (i.e., acts of violence to attain an audience), but it seems equally possible that assured publicity will empower more radicals to engage in some level of expressive violence. Finally, to fully grasp the present and future security implications of social media-enabled radicalization, it will be critical to investigate the degree to which the global COVID-19 pandemic—particularly the social and economic deprivations it has wrought—has increased susceptibility to online radicalization. Evidence about this from experience in the United States is mostly anecdotal at this stage, but it is compelling and supported by prior studies of radicalization drivers.
Although some of these ills may seem like uniquely American problems, their makings are not. These radicalizing processes, which appear to have gripped the political right wing in recent years, are not confined to that side of the political spectrum or to the United States. In the United States, understanding the darker aspects of the gestalt entity of internet and society is urgent because demystifying the radicalization process is an important part of creating “off-ramps” for the radicalized. Even in places where these problems are less urgent, however, most of the same ingredients for runaway cycles of polarization exist and are at least beginning to stoke entrenchment of identity politics or otherwise amplify social cleavages.
Adapting as individuals and countries to the information age will be a long-term, largely reactive, process; and the solutions will vary widely across different social and legal settings. Nonetheless, basic research will be a universal precursor to success, and it is here that collaborative international effort can have the greatest positive impact on mitigating future violent extremism.
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