Dealing with the threat of extremism online has taken on a new urgency in recent years, as prominent extremist organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have proven adept at wielding online influence well beyond the territory that they inhabit or control. These groups and their sympathizers use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—both founded after 9/11—to make their message accessible to people across the world.
While the Internet has undoubtedly become a forum for the promulgation of extremist ideas and the dissemination of know-how for would-be terrorists, its precise role in the radicalization and recruitment process remains open to debate. Though extremists, particularly in the West, are often found to have accessed extremist content online, research into the radicalization process suggests that in-person interactions play a crucial role. People rarely self-radicalize solely through the consumption of extremist media via the Internet.
It is also unclear that “confronting squarely and honestly” the ideas proffered by extremists will be effective, particularly if those instigating the confrontation are unlikely to be seen as credible by the intended audience. Implicit in many official U.S. statements is the notion that challenging the beliefs of those drawn to extremist ideas will lead to the rejection of those ideas and the embrace of moderation. However, recent social science research suggests that seeking to correct beliefs is often ineffective and can even backfire.
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