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Research Spotlight: Understanding the Role of Social Media and Violent Extremism

By Dr. Lieven Pauwels, Professor of Criminology, Ghent University

In short, what is the study about?

This research project was granted by the Belgian Science Policy and the Ministry of the Interior and conducted between 2012-2014. The primary research question dealt with the relationship between exposure to extremist content and politically and/or religiously motivated violence. To complete this task a large-scale survey of adolescents was administered. We reached 6.000 respondents (16-25 years old). Measures from social psychological theories were used to understand the role of grievances (perceived discrimination, feelings of political powerlessness, lack of respect and perceived procedural unjust treatment by the police)) and intervening psychological mechanisms such as thrill-seeking and low impulse control, moral support for the use of violence to obtain goals and exposure to extremist content to illustrate the role of social media and violent extremism.

Additionally, in-depth interviews were conducted in small samples of adolescents that were involved in right-wing, left-wing and religiously extremist groups. This part was the most difficult part. It was tremendously difficult to find adolescents willing to talk about their use of extremist content and violence.

Social Media and Violent Extremism

Individuals who have grievances and are susceptible are at risk of violent extremism through exposure on social media where they believe they find moral support

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Grievances are strongly related to moral support for violent extremism. Individuals that are highly susceptible (that have a high score on propensity towards extremism) are strongly affected by exposure to extremist settings. There is a strong but conditional effect of exposure to extremist content and self-reported political/religious violence. Exposure triggers individuals that see violent extremism as an alternative. Grievances are causes of the causes of extremism, i.e. they effect involvement in violence through their influence of moral support for violent extremism.

How are these findings important in practice?

The findings suggest that both individual and contextual characteristics shape extremist behavior. We found strong conditional effects of exposure to extremist content. The strong interactions may explain why some previous studies found very weak main effects of exposure to violent content and self-reported violence. Our findings are congruent with contemporary studies on juvenile delinquency. Individual and contextual characteristics amplify each other. Some young people are highly vulnerable and others are situationally resistant. Social prevention should focus on tackling the conditions that foster moral support for violent extremism. Cognitive nurturing and moral education seem to be important from that point of view. Additionally, it remains important to restrict exposure to extremist content, although it would be very naïve to assume that only providing counter-narratives would help. They are just one part of a chain of preventive measures.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

More details on our studies can be found here:

Pauwels, L. J. R., & Svensson, R. (2017). How robust is the moderating effect of extremist beliefs on the relationship between self-control and violent extremism? Crime & Delinquency. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0011128716687757

Schils, N., & and Pauwels, L. J. R. (2016). Political violence and the mediating role of violent extremist propensities. Journal of Strategic Security, 9(2), 70-91.

Pauwels, L., & De Waele, M. (2014). Youth involvement in politically motivated violence: Why do social integration, perceived legitimacy, and perceived discrimination matter? International Journal Of Conflict And Violence, 8(1), 134 – 153.

Pauwels, L., & Schils, N. (2016). Differential online exposure to radical content and political violence: Testing the relative strength of social learning and competing perspectives. Terrorism and Political Violence. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2013.876414

Schils, N., & Pauwels, L. J. R. (2014). Explaining violent extremism for subgroups by gender and immigrant background: Using SAT as a framework. Journal of Strategic Security 7, 27-47.


About Lieven Pauwels, Professor of Criminology, Ghent University

Alternative Text

Lieven J. R. Pauwels is Professor of Criminology at the Department of Criminology, Criminal Law and Social Law at Ghent University and Director of IRCP since June 2015. He received his PhD in Criminology from Ghent University in 2006. His dissertation dealt with the topic of neighborhood contextual effects on adolescent offending: a test of social disorganization theory. He is the 2009 winner of the Willem Nagel Award, a tri-annual Dutch Award for the best PhD study written by a Dutch or Flemish scholar published between 2006-2008. He is interested in crime causation theories, unifying frameworks and empirical tests, philosophy of causation and innovative methods in quantitative criminology.

Lieven Pauwels on the Web
More on: Media, Research, Trauma
Latest update: April 12, 2017