‘Extremism is often linked to dissatisfaction and tangible problems in society. If we assume that the problem lies solely with the extremists, then we haven't understood the problem properly,’ says Anne Birgitta Nilsen, Professor at the Department of International Studies and Interpreting.
Together with researchers from seven European countries, she has analysed Twitter conversations among both far-right extremists and Islamist extremists.
These analyses show that there are many similarities between the far-right and Islamist extremists. For example, they both feel, that society is full of double standards and injustice.
‘The social problems these groups experience must be addressed, including discrimination, racism and inequality,’ she says.
Background and reasons for radicalisation
‘People who feel they have fewer opportunities have a greater likelihood of being radicalised. Subjectively perceived inequality can therefore be a more relevant factor for radicalisation than objective inequality,’ the researcher points out.
Socio-political inequality is a more relevant driving force for explaining radicalisation, than economic inequality. The connection between inequality and radicalisation is dependent on context and must be assessed from case to case.
‘Examples of inequality such as poverty, marginalisation and lack of influence at the individual level do not strongly explain radicalisation. The feeling of being discriminated against, unfair treatment and your human rights not being respected can also play a role at both the individual and group level.'
Radicalisation is more a process than a state
An individual’s perception of injustice is perhaps interpreted, reinforced, and justified based on a number of other factors, including their socio-economic situation, personal background, family ties and national context.
‘Inequality creates radicalisation, but the focus on radicalisation also creates inequality through injustice and discrimination. Reducing social problems that certain groups experience to a mere radicalisation issue can strengthen their identity and make them even more prone to radicalisation.'
Experience double standards and injustice
Nilsen has contributed to the project DARE 'Dialogue about radicalisation and equality'. The Twitter conversations that form the data basis are from seven European countries in the period 2010 to 2019.
‘The people behind these selected Twitter accounts experience double standards. There’s one standard for Muslims and another for the majority population.'
'And we find the same thing among far-right extremists, one standard applies to the political elite, and another applies to "ordinary people".’
Both far-right and Islamist extremists describe the injustice as structural, rather than random.
‘For the far-right extremists, immigration, "Islamisation", and the gradual erosion of national identity and culture are perceived threats. The discussion among Islamist extremists concerns discrimination and marginalisation of Muslims in European countries, as well as in other parts of the world.'
Blame political correctness
The state, education systems, and the media are considered to be entities that contribute to, or fail to, address these perceived threats.
‘The far-right Twitter accounts repeatedly state that left-wing politicians, traditional media and the education system are covering up the scope of the threat represented by immigration and Islam,’ says Nilsen. Social problems are blamed on the political correctness of the media and education institutions.
‘The Islamist extremists point out that double standards lead to Muslims being judged more harshly and denied opportunities, despite all the claims of equal opportunities.'
We should be cautious about removing more of the extreme content online. Doing so entails a risk of these Twitter users perceiving it as an attempt to hide the truth about what they perceive as threats and injustice.– Anne Birgitta Nilsen
The Twitter accounts are often directed at someone or something
The researchers also found that the Twitter accounts are also dominated by a generally negative attitude. i.e., that they are against someone or something, and not for something.
‘This negativity from the far-right extremists is directed at immigration and Islam, but it also covered a wider range of political issues, such as climate and the cost of living.'
‘The Islamist extremists’ accounts, for the most part, discussed Western political debates and the West’s involvement in the Middle East in negative terms.’
Leading right-wing populist politicians foster extremism
The researchers conducted some automatic analyses of the topics that the people behind the Twitter conversations were interested in, and who the leading figures in these networks were. They also studied networks across countries.
‘Donald Trump was, by far, the most quoted, discussed and retweeted person among the far-right. He had a huge influence in all the seven countries we obtained material from,’ says Nilsen.
The researchers found that leading right-wing populist politicians like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Nigel Farage are used to foster extremism online.
‘Not everything the above-mentioned politicians say is extreme, but what they say often triggers extreme discussions. They prepare the ground for a more extreme online debate.'
Include or censor?
Securing participation and inclusion on the one hand and removing extreme content on social media on the other is a difficult balancing act.
‘We should be cautious about removing more of the extreme content online. Doing so entails a risk of these Twitter users perceiving it as an attempt to hide the truth about what they perceive as threats and injustice,’ says Nilsen. ‘This can lead to more extremism, rather than less.'
Most people who are exposed to extreme ideas online, or are involved in such conversations, will never go on to act on these ideas. However, certain people are in the risk zone, and they can be influenced to plan and carry out violent extreme acts.
‘We believe it is important to promote responsibility, e.g. that people should not be allowed to operate anonymously online. The solution to the problem of extremism is not more control, as we have witnessed in the years after 22 July 2011, but to gain insight into the perceived injustice people feel, and to do something about it.'
Facts about Dialogue about radicalisation and equality
DARE is funded by Horizon 2020, the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation. The project includes partners in Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Malta, Norway, Poland, Russia, the Netherlands, the UK, Tunisia and Turkey, totalling 13 countries.
The project started in May 2017, will be carried out over four years and is coordinated by the University of Manchester. The Norwegian partners are OsloMet, represented by NOVA (Norwegian Social Research) and the Faculty of Education and International Studies (LUI), as well as CERES, at the University of Oslo.
The DEMOCIT research project
Democracy, Equality, Learning and Mobilisation for Future Citizens (DEMOCIT)
How does Norwegian youths develop political efficacy and belief in their own participation in democratic society? The aim of DEMOCIT is to partake in reducing a growing civic empowerment gap within Norwegian democracy.