Emerging communication technologies, and social media platforms in particular, play an increasingly important role in the radicalization and mobilization processes of violent and non-violent extremists (Archetti, 2015; Cohen et al., 2014; Farwell, 2014; Klausen, 2015). However, the extent to which extremists utilize social media, and whether it influences terrorist outcomes, is still not well understood (Conway, 2017). This research brief expands the current knowledge base by leveraging newly collected data on the social media activities of 479 extremists in the PIRUS dataset who radicalized between 2005 and 2016. This includes descriptive analyses of the frequency of social media usage among U.S. extremists, the types of social media platforms used, the differences in the rates of social media use by ideology and group membership, the purposes of social media use, and the impact of social media on foreign fighter travel and domestic terrorism plots. The PIRUS data reveal four key findings on the relationship between social media and the radicalization of U.S. extremists:
- Online social media platforms are playing an increasingly important role in the radicalization processes of U.S. extremists. While U.S. extremists were slow to embrace social media, in recent years, the number of individuals relying on these user-to-user platforms for the dissemination of extremist content and the facilitation of extremist relationships has grown exponentially. In fact, in 2016 alone, social media played a role in the radicalization processes of nearly 90% of the extremists in the PIRUS data.
- Lone actors (i.e. individuals who were operationally alone in their extremist activities) in the PIRUS data were particularly active on social media. From 2005-2016, social media played a role in the radicalization and mobilization processes of 68.12% of the lone actors in the PIRUS data. In 2016 alone, social media factored into the radicalization and mobilization processes of 88.23% of the lone actors in the PIRUS data. By comparison, from 2005-2016, social media factored into the radicalization of 50.15% of individuals who were members of extremist groups or radical cliques.
- Despite the increased usage of social media among U.S. extremists, user-to-user communications do not appear to increase the likelihood that extremists will be successful in traveling to foreign conflict zones or committing acts of domestic terrorism. In fact, the extremists who were most active on social media had lower success rates regarding foreign fighter travel and terrorist plots than individuals who were not as active on social media. Importantly, activity on open social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, played a key role in the identification and interdiction of U.S. foreign fighters and terrorism suspects in several recent cases.
- While social media does not appear to increase the success rates of extremist outcomes, evidence suggests that it has contributed to the acceleration of radicalization of U.S. extremists. For example, the average radicalization duration (i.e., the time from first exposure to extremist beliefs to participation in extremist acts) of U.S. foreign fighters in 2005, when social media was first emerging as a factor in the radicalization of U.S. extremists, was approximately 18 months. In 2016, when over 90% of U.S. foreign fighters were active on social media, the duration of radicalization was down to 13 months on average.