On 6 May 2020, the Hertie School Security Club held an online session on right-wing extremism and social media with Dr. Daniel Koehler, an expert in terrorism, radicalization, and de-radicalization. Dr. Koehler began the meeting with a presentation and then opened up the “floor” for questions from the audience.
Dr. Koehler pointed to the essential factors that social media plays in the radicalization process. It allows for a sense of anonymity and gives individuals the feeling that they are part of a more significant global movement. Social media has also made it easy for people to connect with the insiders of extremist groups. They gain access by sharing brutal videos, memes, and posts, rather than having to prove themselves through in-person acts of violence.
That being said, radicalization cannot be done through online means alone. The combination of online and offline actions allows for the rapid spread of extremism. In his presentation, Dr. Koehler highlighted the Christchurch attack in New Zealand. The attacker used both online and offline actions to spread his ideology. Copycats were then seen in the U.S., Norway, and Germany using the same ideals.
Dr. Koehler indicated that the best way to fight online extremists is to combat them before they hit a critical level, or if possible, to get them to turn against each other. This would not be an easy feat, requiring legal backing to infiltrate these groups and creating ideological struggles between them. Dr. Koehler described this as cyberwarfare and stated that government backing is essential for a successful countermovement.
During the Q&A, Dr. Koehler revealed the mainstream media’s role in expanding extremism, as well as what actions the average person could take to combat radicalization. In an ideal world, journalists would be focused on truthful and high-quality reporting. Their goal would be to inform the public of ongoing attacks and specific threats. Instead, journalism tends to focus on getting views and likes by publishing the most shocking news. Most of the time, they end up sharing radical propaganda in ways that make it easier for viewers to connect with extremist groups. Extremist groups have become experts in manipulating media sources to share their propaganda.
As for personally combatting radical groups, Dr. Koehler’s advice was clear: within our own circles, simply block those who share intolerant content and report those who publish illegal posts. Whenever possible, educate peers and challenge them to have a clear understanding of their values. We cannot delete extremism from the internet, but we can try to push it to the corner and limit its reach within our own circles.