Social media and internet link to radicalism is overstated, finds study

11 Nov 2016 03:57 PM

Internet use has little effect on radical political intentions, a new study presented at the ESRC Festival of Social Science shows.

Government initiatives aimed at preventing extremism, particularly amongst young Muslims, assume that the internet and social media are the main way in which young people are being radicalised. 

However this new study 'Social Media and Political Attitudes' challenges this assumption, showing that internet and social media use are not strongly or consistently associated with radical intentions.

Researchers Dr Muzammil Quraishi and Professor Chris Birkbeck from the University of Salford questioned 423 students in secondary schools, colleges, and universities in Manchester, as well as parents of secondary school students.

The survey used measures of political mobilisation developed by US researchers, and placed people on a radical intentions scale which measures greater or lesser openness to breaking the law or using violence in defence of political or cultural beliefs.

The study found that: 

  • Of the people surveyed, those with stronger radical intentions were more likely to have opinions on the 'left' side of the political spectrum and  were more likely to be male.
  • The variation of ethnicity and religion did not increase or decrease radical intentions, with Christians and atheists just as likely as Muslims to show stronger radical intentions.
  • While some types of internet and social media use (such as chatting, tweeting and online gaming) were associated with stronger radical intentions, others (such as using email, or visiting websites with extreme content) were not.
  • Most types of internet and social media use were not associated with the very strongest radical intentions.

The strongest correlate of radicalism was a higher level of activism, a legitimate form of political mobilisation involving openness to joining or supporting a political organisation in the future to defend political or cultural beliefs. 

Although prior experience of political activity, such as going to a demonstration or contacting a politician, was weakly associated with stronger radical intentions it was not associated with the very strongest radical intentions. 

The route to strongly radical intentions therefore does not appear to be a 'conveyor belt' from legitimate to illegitimate politics. 

The research suggests that too much emphasis is being placed on policies aimed at stopping children accessing social media as a way of fighting radicalisation. The UK government's Prevent strategy, in particular has faced criticism as it is seen as targeting surveillance particularly on the Muslim population.

Dr Muzammil Quraishi says: "The idea is that if you police internet use you can somehow reduce radicalisation, however our study shows that the picture is not as straightforward as this, and that face-to-face interaction may be more important than internet use when it comes to radicalisation. 

"Our study also debunks the idea that radicalisation is more prominent amongst Muslim populations, as religion had no effect on radical intentions."

Professor Chris Birkbeck says: "Great caution must be exercised in any actions designed to prevent or dilute 'radicalisation', both in terms of who is targeted and what is done.

"Instead of focusing on internet use, interventions may be more effective if they aim at strengthening young people's engagement with conventional politics so that they have a legitimate way of channelling their individual and group grievances into the political sphere."

Further information

  • Gareth Hollyman - Senior Press and PR Officer, University of Salford
    Telephone: 0161 295 6895

Notes for editors

  1. The research was presented as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science event, 'Applied criminological research: social media and political extremism', at the University of Salford. The event included an interactive workshop for school/college learners, providing them with an overview of funded research recently undertaken in Manchester.
  2. The 14th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 5-12 November 2016 with more than 270 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country's leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there's something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available online. You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK's future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.