Key players in radical Islamic and extreme right-wing groups make use of similar strategies to mobilize support on social media. The joint research project "X-Sonar" arrived at this finding. The Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Ministry of Education and Research, BMBF) funded X-Sonar's work as part of their funding line on civil security research. Over the past three years, X-Sonar researchers investigated the ways in which extremist groups build networks of support both online and offline. It is through these groups that they engage people and mobilize support for their aims. The researchers evaluated both online content and the biographies of convicted individuals who were active in extremist spheres in order to pave the way for early intervention and prevention in the future.
The project's closing conference brought together academic researchers, security authorities, justice officials and experts in civil prevention practices, who convened in Bielefeld on Thursday, 30 January, to attend X-Sonar's closing conference.
Conference participants discussed the findings of the project at Bielefeld University's Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (Center for Interdisciplinary Research, ZiF). "Both radical Islamic and extreme right-wing groups use some of the same strategies online to attract attention and normalize extremist discourse," says Professor Dr. Andreas Zick, of the Institut für Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung (Institue for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence, IKG) at Bielefeld University. "By using social media campaigns that are accessible to non-extremist individuals and groups, extremists succeed in polarizing and emotionalizing these kinds of ideologies," as Zick explains. Prof. Zick, a social psychologist, heads X-Sonar together with Dr. Kerstin Eppert, a sociologist who is also a member of the IKG.
"Extremist groups make very strategic use of social media," says Dr. Eppert. "That said, spreading messages that glorify violence and promote racism is only part of the strategy. An equally important component includes making resources accessible in both covert and known networks of support," explains Eppert. "By this, we are referring to an open invitation to join the movement - an invitation that is tailored to the means and abilities of each and every individual." As Prof. Zick explains, radical Islamic and extreme right-wing movements are characterized by their 'division of labor.' "Extremist networks do not operate solely as engines of radicalization. They also require support, whether in disseminating ideology or acquiring funds."
How Terrorists Behave in Online Networks
Researchers from seven different sites presented their findings at the conference. Kristin Weber, of the Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei (German Police University), for instance, discussed how German jihadis to Syria become radicalized, and which means of communication and methods of networking were used in doing so. Nils Böckler, of the Institut Psychologie und Bedrohungsmanagement (Psychology and Threat Management Institute), investigated different patterns of behavior exhibited by terrorists in online social networks. "Before an attack, terrorists communicate differently than other radicalized individuals who are not planning to commit violence," says Böckler.
According to Böckler, the Internet is a space in which the processes of escalation to violence can be detected early on. This is why X-Sonar was interested in developing technological methods for detecting extremist mobilization online in order to assist researchers as well as investigators in their work. "With methods like these, authorities and researchers alike can gain insight into whether a situation threatens to escalate - by monitoring certain Twitter hashtags or relevant Facebook pages, for instance," explains Alexander Gluba, who works on X-Sonar together with the Landeskriminalamt Niedersachsen (Criminal Police Office of the Federal State of Lower Saxony). Gluba cites the example of the Chemnitz protests of August 2018, during which right-wing extremists attacked the local population, targeting primarily immigrants. "We now know that these attacks were coordinated by right-wing extremists in online chats."
Developing New Methods of Analysis
"Because X-Sonar brought together project partners from tech and the social sciences, we were able to develop new methods of analysis, such as combining the analysis of online data with information from court records," says Kerstin Eppert. This helps to shed light, for instance, on how extremist support networks are embedded in society.
During the conference, the joint project X-Sonar presented its research on how radical Islamic networks operate, in addition to other topics. "We have new findings on the structures and resources of such networks," says Eppert. "We were able to demonstrate, for example, that the radical Salafist scene in Germany is currently undergoing a process of reorganization. In social networks online, there is a web of portals and organizations whose proceeds provide financial support to the Salafist scene."
It is also with these networks that individuals who returned from territory held by the Islamic State (IS) and are now serving time in German prisons are kept active in the Salafist scene. "These online networks document the on-going legal proceedings of IS-returnees, which helps maintain the image of Germany as the enemy state." At the same time, the names and contact information of convicted IS-returnees are also published online - ostensibly out of compassion - to encourage people to write letters that will provide emotional support to convicts in prison. "This exerts a massive amount of pressure on individuals who might potentially leave the scene," as Eppert explains.
The X-Sonar Joint Project
The project name "X-Sonar" stands for "Extremist Engagement in Social Media Networks: Identifying, Analyzing and Preventing Processes of Radicalization." The BMBF funded the project since 2017 with a total of 3 million Euro. Additional project partners in addition to Bielefeld University's IKG include the Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei in Münster (German Police University), the Deutsche Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz in Berlin (German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence), the Institut Psychologie und Bedrohungsmanagement in Darmstadt (Psychology and Threat Management Institute), the Abteilung Kriminologische Forschung und Statistik des Landeskriminalamts Niedersachsen in Hannover (Department of Criminology Research and Statistics of the Criminal Police Office of the Federal State of Lower Saxony) and the Landesinstitut für Präventives Handeln in St. Ingbert, Saarland (State Institute for Preventative Action).