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Study of convicted extremists shows that open social media platforms are playing an increasing role in radicalisation

The internet is playing an increasingly prominent role in radicalisation, with a particular rise in the use of open social media platforms, according to a comprehensive analysis of the online activity of convicted extremists in England and Wales.

Person using a computer
The study explored the relationship between online activity and the type of offences committed

The research by Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) was the first to use closed source data and has been published in a parliamentary report by the Ministry of Justice.

Researchers were given access to more than 230 detailed post-conviction assessments to investigate online and offline activities in the build-up to the offence, together with ratings of risk levels and further characteristics of each individual and case.

The study explored the relationship between online activity and the type of offences committed among three groups: those who primarily radicalised online; those who primarily radicalised offline; and those radicalised through both online and offline influences.

Findings show that since 2005 the proportion of offenders radicalised online has increased, while at the same time those who were subject primarily to offline influences were found to have decreased.

The types of websites, platforms and applications used by those who are convicted of extremist offences were found to have changed over time, moving away from specific extremist websites towards the use of open social media platforms.

The research, which included reports containing assessments of overall levels of engagement, intent and capability, also reveals that those who had radicalised mainly or solely online were the least likely to be engaged with an extremist group, cause or ideology, and least willing and able to perpetrate violent extremist acts. They were also less likely to be socially connected to other extremists offline in the context of the offence and more likely to display strong signs of mental illness or personality disorder.

Conversely, those who had radicalised primarily offline were more likely to take on the role of attacker compared against the other two groups and were less likely to follow an Islamist extremist ideology as opposed to another ideological cause.

When analysing the perceived risk of committing future violent extremist offences, the ‘hybrid’ group, which included those who were subject to both online and offline influences, were found to have the highest levels of engagement and intent to commit future extremist offences, compared to the other pathway groups.

The group primarily radicalised offline were found to have the highest levels of capability to commit future extremist offences likely to cause serious or significant harm, again compared to the other pathway groups.

Dr Jonathan Kenyon, HMPPS National Specialist Lead for Extremism, carried out the research as part of a Doctorate in Forensic Psychology. He said: “This current study, using a large and unique dataset, provides a number of interesting and novel insights into the way convicted extremists in England and Wales have used the internet and engaged in online activities in the context of their offending.  As such, it makes an important contribution to the literature which up until now has been largely reliant on open-source data or small numbers of case studies drawing from primary data.”

Co-researcher, Dr Jens Binder, senior lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “Online radicalisation as a route towards extremist offending is on the rise, and the pace of development is in line with the expansion of the Internet into all domains of everyday life. We can see from our findings that the pathway to radicalisation individuals take can make a crucial difference in terms of the risks they pose – this highlights the need for a more systematic investigation of online dynamics in the context of radicalisation.

“Sustained efforts in the profiling of online and offline pathways into radicalisation can contribute to counter-terrorism measures and more effective offender assessment and treatment with the prison system.”

  • Notes for editors

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    Dr Jonathan Kenyon is a BPS Chartered and HCPC Registered Psychologist. He currently works as a National Specialist Lead for Extremist Offending within HMPPS Intervention Services.  He recently completed the Doctorate qualification in Forensic Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.  His thesis was entitled The Role of the Internet in the Radicalisation Process and Offending of Individuals Convicted of Extremist Offences.

    Dr Jens Binder is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.  His research focuses on cybersecurity and safety, social media engagement and user wellbeing as well as cognitive factors in online communication.  He draws on perspectives from cyberpsychology, cognitive psychology and HCI and uses predominantly quantitative methods.  His work has been published in high profile journals including American Psychologist, Computers in Human Behaviour, New Media & Society and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  He regularly supervises projects at PhD level and leads on a specialist Postgraduate degree in Cyberpsychology.

    Dr Christopher Baker-Beall is Senior Lecturer in Crisis and Disaster Management at Bournemouth University.  His research focuses on European Union security policy, the issue of ‘radicalisation’, and the merging of migration, border control and counter-terrorism. His publications include The European Union’s Fight Against Terrorism: Discourse, Policies, Identity (Manchester University Press, 2016) and the edited collections Counter Radicalisation: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015).

    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    The university has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With over 37,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University injects £1.6bn into the UK economy. It has been the largest recruiter of UK undergraduates in each of the last four years. With an international student population of more than 6,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Study of convicted extremists shows that open social media platforms are playing an increasing role in radicalisation

Published on 15 September 2021
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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