Extremists and the use of social networks in the U.S.

Isolating and comparing the social networking habits of two different types of extremists may better prepare justice system agencies to prevent and respond to extremist violence in the United States.

Research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has found that study samples of individuals in the United States who have been involved in violent and non-violent hate crimes and other forms of extremist crime were influenced by social networks.

One of the key findings of this study is that extremists may mirror the general population in their use of various social networking platforms, especially in terms of dependence on Facebook. Although the sample size was relatively small and less than 20% of this sample said they used this social network, Facebook usage was found to be markedly higher than that of any other social networking platform.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) carried out the study of social media use as part of a larger investigation, which tapped into two major national databases of extremist events and individuals:

ECDB. Extremist Crime Database: ECDB is a database that tracks violent attacks, homicides and financial crimes committed by extremists in the United States. Attacks tracked in ECDB include bombings, shootings or other violent assaults resulting in at least one death. The database primarily, but not exclusively, tracks left-wing, right-wing and jihadist extremists.

PIRUS. Profiles of individual radicalization in the United States: PIRUS is a database of individuals in the United States who radicalised to the point of committing ideologically motivated violent or non-violent criminal activity, or ideologically motivated association with a foreign or domestic extremist organisation. The PIRUS database includes individuals who are typically considered to be perpetrators of hate crimes, i.e., violent acts or spontaneous threats against another person on the basis of gender identity, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual preference. In the PIRUS database the data are anonymous.

The research studied 2,100 cases in ECDB and 1,500 cases in PIRUS. Of these, 454 individuals from the PIRUS database were matched with individuals identified in ECDB.

In a study segment focused on the use of social networks by extremists, researchers searched various social networking platforms for data revealing the use of a specific platform by individuals found in PIRUS or ECDB and associated with an act of violence.

The study focused on cases occurring after 2007. This period has seen a significant increase in the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, according to the researchers’ report.

The results of the social networking research segment suggest that the patterns of use of different platforms vary according to ideological groups and may reflect the use of these platforms in the general population. Differences may also reflect conflicting interests of individuals with respect to groups. The research report noted the need for further research examining the use and quantity of social media posts expressing ideological beliefs within and across radical ideological agendas.


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