Extremism (Re)defined: Online and Wider implications

By Lee Jarvis and Stuart Macdonald

The growing number of regulatory regimes aimed at moderating online terrorist and violent extremist content, coupled with more informal processes for law enforcement and other state actors to refer such content to tech companies, have been described as the public-private co-production of security. In this context, it is significant that on Thursday 14 March 2024, UK Communities Secretary Michael Gove announced the UK’s new formal definition of ‘extremism’. Under this definition – which will have no legal standing – extremism is now to be understood as:

the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 1 negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or 2 undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or 3 intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).

The new understanding is likely to impact the online realm, as it can be expected to inform the referrals made by the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (which since its inception has contributed to the removal of over 300,000 items of content). It will also have wider political implications in that government and the civil service will be prohibited from engaging with organisations deemed to meet this new test. Indeed, the new definition has, already, attracted criticism and opposition from a wide range of advocacy, activist, and other civil society organisations.

Perhaps the most positive thing to say about the new definition of extremism is that it replaces an older understanding found in the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy, Prevent. That understanding approached extremism as ‘active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. As many academics and others have argued this approach was problematic because ‘British values’ is either inaccurate (given the UK’s long history of undermining such values at home and abroad for racial, religious, sexual and other minorities), vague to a point approaching meaninglessness, or complicit in the exclusion or othering of specific communities and groups. The new definition’s focus on universal rights or national institutions, at least in principle, diminishes this identarian emphasis on a particular normative (and very parochial) sense of what it means to be (and, therefore, who is) British.

That Michael Gove has been able to redefine the concept of extremism is important, in part, because it pulls attention to the term’s conceptual elasticity. This is something the term shares with adjacent concepts like terrorism and radicalisation, which have well-documented capacity to be used in different ways and for different purposes. This elasticity reflects, in part, the rhetorical power of labels such as these to critique, condemn, and even demonise one’s opponents. It also links to the relational nature of language and the capacity of such terms to position the condemner of (here) extremism as morally superior to their opponents: if ‘they’ are extremist, then ‘we’ must be moderate. When the UK government adds organisations to its list of proscribed or banned ‘terrorist’ groups, for instance, it frequently condemns them as irrational, illiberal, immoderate and immoral. In so doing, of course, the government is also affirming the rational, liberal, moderate and moral nature of itself ,and the wider country it represents.

The conceptual flexibility of terms such as extremism matters, ultimately, for what it renders possible: such flexibility sets the parameters for the different ways in which the category might be applied to particular groups. As such, the key question becomes: how will the new definition be applied in practice? Which groups will be identified as exposers of ‘violence’, ‘hatred’ or ‘intolerance’ seeking to undermine, overturn, or replace UK systems and rights, and so forth? On the one hand, these constituent terms – violence, hatred, intolerance – are no less problematic than the broader concept of ‘extremism’ of which they are now deemed generative. At the same time, however, we already have a sense of the types of organisation the UK government has in mind. The list of potential targets identified by Michael Gove in Parliament comprises fringe far right or neo-Nazi groups, on the one hand, and more widely-known advocacy organisations associated with Islam, on the other. The examples that are in the public domain will do little to assuage two importance concerns. First, that the approach will be felt far more keenly by organisations representing racial and religious minorities. Second, that the new definition’s conceptual flexibility also leaves it open for ever more expansive application through design or otherwise. There are, you may remember, well documented recent cases of protest groups like Extinction Rebellion being identified as ‘extremist’ by counterterrorism police.

These two concerns are particularly acute in the online realm. Many, including tech companies themselves, have expressed concern at the lack of transparency – and, as a result, accountability – surrounding referrals made to online platforms by state actors. Yet it may fall to these companies to safeguard against an inconsistent, discriminatory, or expansive application of the new definition of extremism. And this is at a time when there is widespread discomfort at tech companies being the arbiters – let alone the guardians – of free speech rights.

The immediate contexts to this new definition are also important here. First, has been the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism in the UK since the 7 October attacks in Israel, and the response of that state in Gaza. There is also, of course, a UK election to take place within the next nine months or so, and security discourses underpinned by racialised categories like ‘extremism’ may play to constituencies attracted by the Conversative Party’s traditional stance as the party of law and order. Discussions of the impending list of extremism groups as some form of ‘proscription light’ – a list of groups that don’t quite meet the threshold for terrorism – are instructive here because they (unintentionally) spotlight the important performative character of this move. A new framework of extremism is a simple and effective way of signalling a toughness to voters through boundary drawing between the British self and a list of yet-to-be decided others. In this sense it taps into a longstanding energy within British conservatism evident in Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy or, indeed, the proposed ‘counter-extremism bill’ that collapsed, in part, precisely because of conceptual and rhetorical difficulties.

The communicative or performative power of this new framework demonstrates its discursive or rhetorical importance for politicians and others. But this should not distract from its likely practical consequences for life and citizenship within the UK. If nothing else, the renewed attention to extremism will almost certainly lead to a reduction in freedoms of expression and association in practice. People, rightly or wrongly, often self-censor or self-silence due to fear of government targeting or guilt by association. In the recent Shawcross report, for example, there was an extensive use of social media posts to discredit organisations for their association with individuals deemed extremist. A failure to self-censor can, therefore, have significant knock-on effects and create a chilling effect. This is far more likely to be the case for members of racial, religious, cultural, or other communities who are widely depicted as being ‘suspect’ or suspicious.

One final point worth mentioning is that security measures – when introduced – often outlive their initial justification and rationale. That which is seen as exceptional, often becomes over time, normalised or taken-for-granted. This means that the potential online and offline consequences of the UK’s new approach to extremism may be with us for longer than anticipated by its advocates or even its critics.

Lee Jarvis is Professor of International Politics at Loughborough University, UK and holds honorary positions at the University of Adelaide, Australia and the University of East Anglia, UK. His research focuses on how security threats such as terrorism are constructed and communicated, and the implications of this for citizenship, communities, and policy. 

Stuart Macdonald is Professor of Law at the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University, UK. He is Co-Director of the University’s Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) and Coordinator of the VOX-Pol Network. Stuart’s research focuses on the dissemination of terrorist content online and regulatory responses. 

Image Credit: PEXELS