Examining Online Behaviours: Violent and Non-Violent Right-Wing Extremists During Peak Posting Days

BRyan Scrivens

For more on these findings and the nature of the study in general, see the full manuscript which was recently published open access in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

Despite the ongoing need for practitioners to identify violent right-wing extremists (RWEs) online before their engagement in violence offline, there is little empirical knowledge about their digital footprints in general or differences in their posting behaviours compared to their non-violent counterparts, especially on high-frequency posting days. This is an important oversight for several reasons. First, examining the online behaviours of RWEs during peak days would facilitate a better understanding of the composition of and patterns comprising high traffic and popular discussion days – especially if there are differences in the content posted by violent and non-violent users in this regard. Indeed, peak posting days generate the most user engagement as they must take time to write a post to participate in an online community, and, in so doing, they attach themselves to a particular viewpoint by sharing it online. Further, it is likely that more eyes are viewing the content posted on these high-frequency days and thus have a wider audience and reach. Such a high volume of engagement may also increase the potential to influence other viewers, as has been found in key research on social influence, as well as be persuasive in radicalising individuals to extremist violence. Some users may take advantage of these high-traffic days to spread their extremist views. Second, much of the current thinking about the relationship between online posting activity and extremist violence seems to be premised on the untested assumption that more posting equals more violence. While this presumption is intuitively appealing, it is not grounded empirically.

This Insight summarises an exploratory study which is derived from a larger research project on the online behavioural posting patterns of violent and non-violent RWEs. This study expands prior research by examining the online behaviours of violent and non-violent RWEs during peak posting days (i.e., days comprising the highest frequency of postings) and non-peak posting days (i.e., days that do not comprise the highest frequency of postings). Figure 1 describes the distribution of postings in the data and highlights the uniqueness of the peak posting days.

Figure 1. Distribution of postings on Stormfront Canada.

Content analysis was used to examine postings from a unique sample of violent and non-violent right-wing extremists as well as from a sample of postings within a sub-forum of the largest white supremacy forum, Stormfront, during peak and non-peak posting days for comparison purposes. Data were coded for RWE ideologies and violent mobilisation efforts. Several noteworthy posting behaviours were identified that may assist in identifying credible threats online.

First, a large proportion of ideological posts, especially in comparison to mobilisation posts, were observed in the violent, non-violent, and comparison groups during both peak and non-peak posting days. This finding was expected, as previous research has found that Stormfront and other online platforms used by RWEs, in general, contain a sizable amount of explicit and overt ideological content. But, regardless of whether the content was posted on peak or non-peak days, among the most frequently observed ideological discourse across the sample groups was generally anti-government, conspiratorial, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant (see Table 1). 

Empirical research has similarly found that antisemitic and conspiracy discourses are embedded in RWE ideologies and in much of the RWE rhetoric expressed online, including in RWE forumssocial media sites, and fringe platforms. Although some recent work has found that anti-government sentiment makes up a small proportion of postings found on several RWE forums, the findings from the current study align with other research suggesting that RWEs oftentimes endorse anti-government sentiment and contribute to their underlying belief system – and especially online. Similarly, the extent to which anti-immigrant sentiment is expressed in online RWE spaces compared to other extremist ideologies is mixed in the academic literature. Some work suggests that it is less apparent in RWE forums than other RWE ideological content, while other work finds that anti-immigrant sentiment is prevalent in RWE content, including on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Reddit, and RWE forums. The results of the current study align with the latter research.

Table 1. Presentation of ideological posts by sample group.

Peak posting dayNon-peak posting day
Christian Identity001201
Male supremacy000000

Second, the non-violent group posted a noticeably larger proportion of ideological content on peak and non-peak posting days than the violent and comparison groups (see Table 2). This finding also comes as little surprise, as research similarly suggests that the online behaviours of non-violent RWEs tend to reflect one of an ‘ideologue’ wherein they post a much larger proportion of ideological content than their violent counterpart as well those posting in the online community in general. These non-violent users likely perceive their role in and engage with the RWE movement as ideologues by providing “conceptual tools” that can be taken up by others involved in RWE violence, which has been reported in empirical research. Interestingly, anti-government postings were the most frequently observed ideological messages for this non-violent group both during peak and non-peak days, while the most frequently observed ideological messages for the violent and comparison groups varied by peak and non-peak days. For the violent group, conspiratorial posts were the most common during peak days, and anti-government was the most common during non-peak days, while anti-government messages were most common for the comparison group during peak days and conspiratorial were most common during non-peak days. Together, it appears that the non-violent group express themselves as and engage with the RWE movement as political types, as has been found in prior work, while the ideological content posted by the violent and comparison groups may in part be dictated by the topics of conversation in the online community more generally. Regardless, this evidence base remains in its infancy and requires further exploration.

Table 2. Presentation of violent extremist mobilization posts across sample group.

Peak posting dayNon-peak posting day
End of life preparations000000
Seeking help to travel abroad000000
Planning a trip abroad000000
Seeking permission to engage in violence030000
Seeking to recruit others to mobilize2049612818
Asking to purchase/how to obtain illegal material000000
Includes terrorist icons/flags/prominent figures/symbols/slogans12540246
Expressing goodbyes000000
Acceptance of violence as a necessary means to achieve ideological goals000000
Attempting to radicalize others/pushing others to action 624130973464
Involved in a group that promotes violence to rectify grievances1110161
Provides virtual simulations of an attack/assault000000
Discusses behavioural change000010
Linguistic expressions that reflect new sense of purpose000000
Advocates/encourages violence817524615
Asks for information about specific targets000000
Asks for technical expertise000000
Contains a violent, ideologically motivated outburst011401
Blames external factors for failure in school, career, or relationships000000
Display an unstable mental state (e.g., mental health, derailing)000200
Discusses operational security and asks about ways to evade law enforcement000000
Praises past successful/attempted attacks000000
Inappropriate use of what an individual perceives as doctrine to manipulate others000000

Third, each sample group posted remarkably fewer ideological messages during peak posting days than they did during non-peak days. This finding comes as a surprise because prior work on the online presence of RWEs has overwhelmingly found that peak and high-frequency posting days generate a sizeable amount of RWE content. Perhaps it is the case that users in the current study are of the view that posting an extensive amount of ideological content is unnecessary during peak posting days because user engagement is already high. It may also be the case that the topics of discussion during these peak days draw users away from extensive discussions about extremist ideologies. Nevertheless, this question requires further exploration.

Fourth and perhaps most notable was the extent to which violent extremist mobilisation efforts were observed in all three sample groups in general and within and across peak and non-peak posting days in particular. The observed mobilisation efforts, although less frequent than ideological posts, suggested that some users were preparing to engage in extremist violence or were making efforts to mobilise others to extremist violence, which has similarly been found in research on the online behaviours of violent and non-violent RWEs as well as in RWE forums known for facilitating violent extremism. Furthermore, across the three sample groups, the most frequently observed mobilisation posts were similar during peak and non-peak days, with the most common being attempts to radicalise others/push others to action as well as recruiting others to mobilise, which too was found in prior research during posting days generally. 

However, there were important differences in the most frequently observed mobilisation efforts made across sample groups. During peak and non-peak posting days, for example, a common mobilisation effort made by the non-violent and comparison groups was advocating/encouraging violence. Research has similarly found that non-violent RWEs post more online messages advocating/encouraging violence than their violent counterpart, perhaps in part because they are less fearful about doing so because they are not engaging in physical violence themselves offline. On the other hand, a common mobilisation effort for the violent group was posting messages that contained icons/flags/prominent figures/symbols/slogans – in particular, popular RWE slogans. 

The following are two examples that best capture these mobilisation efforts:

We should not try and change history we should have an active knowledge of our predecessors and what they have created for us. Today is ours, and tomorrow is the future. RACE OVER ALL! (Violent group post, non-peak posting day).

I haven’t been logged on here in a while…..ran into some trouble.   sorry for not replying back […] if anyone of you guys want to get back to me……email me […] We must secure the existance of our race and the future for white children CHEERS. (Violent group post, non-peak posting day).

Interestingly, previous research has also found that violent RWEs generally post online using RWE slogans compared to their non-violent counterpart and it is common for such markers to be embedded in the practices of violent RWE groups. This is a posting behaviour that analysts who are searching for signs of violent extremists online – especially in mainstream social media platforms – should narrow in on. 

Along the same lines, most striking was the extent to which the violent group posted mobilisation messages during peak days compared to non-peak days. In other words, unlike the other sample groups, the violent group posted a noticeably larger proportion of mobilisation posts on peak days than they did on non-peak days. Perhaps the violent group – who were generally the least active of all sample groups – saw peak posting days as opportune times to take advantage of the high online traffic and make efforts to mobilise others to extremism. Such a finding was a surprise, as previous work has found that violent RWEs tend to post mobilisation posts at a much lower rate than their non-violent counterpart, likely because they are concerned that law enforcement officials and anti-racist groups are monitoring their online activities and want to avoid detection. Yet other recent work suggests that the presumed positive association between posting frequency and the risk of extremist violence may not be so straightforward. Indeed, this is a question of policy relevance that should be investigated in future research as well as by mainstream social media platforms making efforts to identify and combat terrorism and violent extremism in their online spaces.

Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. He is also an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre and a Research Fellow at VOX-Pol.

This blog is a repost from a published GNET insight. Click here to read the original article.

Image – Freepik

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