Is the internet really more effective at radicalizing people than older media?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum & Andrew Berkley, Lead, Immersive Technology and Content, World Economic Forum


  • Researchers have now been studying the internet’s role in radicalization for decades.
  • The World Economic Forum created a visualization of radicalization in the US over a 70-year period.
  • The visualization illustrates the expanded role of internet use in fostering extremism.

Gavrilo Princip was 19-years-old, impressionable and increasingly alienated as his political views grew more extreme.

By the time he arrived in Sarajevo to assassinate the heir to the throne in an empire of more than 51 million people and alter the course of modern history in 1914, he’d been radicalized via means available for millennia.

The internet is certainly far from the first medium used to foster extremism. But it seems to be uniquely effective.

Among the individuals profiled in PIRUS, a detailed database of people in the US who were radicalized, social media played a role in the process for 27% of them between 2005 and 2010. That increased to 73% between 2011 and 2016.

A report submitted to lawmakers in Australia cautioned that the threat of right-wing terrorism is increasing during the pandemic due in part to social media, and the UN has warned that right-wing terror groups are using the health crisis to radicalize and recruit online – it noted a 750% increase in anti-Semitic tweets as the outbreak began, amid escalating hate crimes against people of Asian descent.

Authorities in the US have been arresting an average of three defendants per day on charges related to the insurrection at the Capitol in January. Many will plead that they were duped by baseless claims about election fraud amplified on social media.

The mother of one woman charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds said her daughter had taken a sudden interest in “far right message boards,” according to court documents. The woman allegedly used a group-chat app recently valued at $12 billion to boast that she’d stolen a computer from the Speaker of the House during the melee.

The Forum has used PIRUS data to create a visualization of radicalization in the US from 1948, when the first live nightly news broadcast appeared on TV, to 2018, well into the internet era. In the excerpt below, people radicalized over the years by far right (red dots), far left (blue dots), and Islamist groups (yellow dots) are represented by location.

Image: World Economic Forum

TV remains a potent means of manipulation. But the internet may be an algorithmic, personalized upgrade. Its role in radicalization has now been researched for more than two decades; one study published earlier this month found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm regularly suggests videos with misinformation and hate speech that violate company policies.

In the visualization excerpt below, white dots represent the locations of people entered into the PIRUS database over the years who were radicalized through the internet.

Image: World Economic Forum

One study published earlier this year sought to delve deeper into anecdotal evidence of the internet’s role in radicalization; it found that “beheading” videos were the most sought-after jihadist material online among young people in Belgium, but also the material least predictive for radicalization. The conclusion: it might not be the internet that radicalizes people, as much as general moral disengagement.

Still, pressure has mounted on social media sites to crack down. Facebook recently provided a glimpse of a related effort that asks users if they’re concerned someone they know is becoming an extremist – and provides a link to “get support.”

In the visualization excerpt below, white dots represent the locations of people entered into the PIRUS database over the years who were radicalized through Facebook.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The rise of right-wing extremist groups that thrive online prompted a shift in the language used to identify terrorist threats in Australia, according to this analysis – though the bland nature of that new language raises concerns about bowing to the conservative side of politics. (Lowy Institute)
  • Inmates detained at the same jail for their role in the US Capitol insurrection regularly sing the national anthem “loud and proud,” according to one who has bragged during a recorded Zoom call about being armed during the assault. (ProPublica)
  • A Belgian soldier disappeared after being implicated in weapons theft and threats to kill the country’s top pandemic virologist, according to this analysis. It didn’t take long for a Facebook group supporting him to attract more than 50,000 members. (The Conversation)
  • “It’s ironic, if you think about it.” This study suggests that in order to prompt people to make the right choices and resist extremist messages, it might actually be best to stress their autonomy by telling them they’re free to accept or reject them. (Science Daily)
  • Radicalization in America requires a new plan, and according to this analysis the current administration’s approach – based on two decades of studying radicalization in the internet era – is a welcome change. (Harvard Kennedy School)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Internet Governance, Peace and Resilience, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Here’s how to achieve growth in the Middle East and North Africa

UN Security Council condemns Taliban offensive as a blow against ‘sustainable peace’

Facebook and Google to treat Europe as the 51st State of the USA

European Solidarity Corps 2021-2027: First call for proposals to support youth volunteering activities

How music can help children with autism connect

To Bing or Not to Bing? That is the question

Gender equality: an issue much talked about but less acted upon

Terrorism and migrants: the two awful nightmares for Europe and Germany in 2016

Portugal can use its economic recovery to build up resilience

Pharmaceuticals spend millions to push TTIP while consumer groups spend peanuts

The EU Parliament slams Commission on economic governance

An economist explains the pros and cons of globalization

Protecting the front line: the healthcare of health professionals

State aid: Commission approves French scheme deferring payment by airlines of certain taxes to mitigate economic impact of coronavirus outbreak

Low productivity jobs continue to drive employment growth

“Fortress Europe”, “Pegida” and its laughing stocks

New challenge: Not going through “burnout” in times of quarantine

Mental and comportamental health in the pandemic context

An Easter Special: Social protection of migrants in Europe as seen through the eyes of European youth

Pharmaceuticals conceal drug side effects with the EU’s Court blessing

European Citizens’ Initiative: Commission registers ‘Mandatory food labelling Non-Vegetarian / Vegetarian / Vegan’ initiative’

Greenery: the miracle cure for urban living

Italy should boost investment in training for the future of work

Sustainable Finance: Commission welcomes the adoption by the European Parliament of the Taxonomy Regulation

Macro-Financial Assistance: Europe’s way to control Ukraine?

Companies can help build a more inclusive world. Here’s how

Joris in Indonesia

5 steps businesses can take to protect air quality after COVID-19

5 charts that show renewable energy’s latest milestone

Devastating storms like Hurricane Florence ‘unusual this far north’: UN weather agency

Inflammation is the fuel that feeds the cancer flame. So how do we fight back?

Digital democracy: a Swiss view on digital trust

Four in five adolescents failing to exercise for even 60 minutes a day, UN health agency warns

Gaza: deadly violence continues to escalate, top UN officials work to restore calm

This is Germany’s $45 billion, 18-year plan to move away from coal

‘Time is of the essence’ for refugees on Greek islands – UN agency

Huawei answers allegations about its selling prices

Break taboo around menstruation, act to end ‘disempowering’ discrimination, say UN experts

Can the whole world live in peace?

From Russia with love: Brussels and Moscow close to an agreement on Ukraine’s gas supplies

Innovations for Content Professionals at the DCX exhibition 2018 in Berlin, in association with The European Sting

EU prolongs economic sanctions on Russia by six months

Business is a crucial partner in solving the mental health challenge

UN chief welcomes event reuniting families on the Korean Peninsula

Rule of Law: Commission launches infringement procedure to protect the independence of the Polish Supreme Court

Auditors say EU spending delivers limited value for money but the timing of their report poses questions

Ebola Outbreak in Democratic Republic Congo is ‘largely contained’: WHO

Mergers: Commission refers acquisition of newly created joint venture by Telefónica and Liberty Global to the UK competition authority

Brexit: visa-free access to the EU for UK nationals and to the UK for Europeans

Statement following the European Medicines Agency review of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca

“Decisions taken in the coming weeks will shape Europe’s experience of the internet”, Joe Mcnamee from EDRi says live from European Business Summit 2015

We must rethink and repurpose cybersecurity for the COVID-19 era

Free and secure access needed in DR Congo conflict zone to tackle Ebola – WHO

Here’s what keeps CEOs awake at night (and why it might be bad news for your next job)

President Ursula von der Leyen welcomes the first official submission of a recovery and resilience plan by Portugal

THE COMMITTEES: ‘All roads lead to the Fifth’

EU summit: step up work for recovery, and update migration and asylum system

The Bavarians threaten Berlin and Brussels with immigration crisis

EU lawmakers vote to reintroduce visas for Americans over “reciprocity principle”

EU helps tackle air pollution in Kosovo with €76.4 million

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s