This article summarizes a panel from the Terrorism and Social Media Conference 2022 hosted by Swansea University.
By Mr Jade Hutchinson
State of play
Networks of organisms and their relationship with different environments are difficult to theorize. Natural sciences are abundant in terms and concepts to articulate the emergent complexity of evolving networks, their processes of development, and systematic manner. Research into terrorism and violent extremism has sought to capitalize biology to better conceptualize extremist networks. However, the borrowed use of biology remains largely figurative. For example, extremism was analogized to an almost watery or elemental substance that ‘ebbs’, ‘flows’, and ‘spirals’, carving, or sculpting a communities’ composition or composure. Epidemiological metaphors have portrayed extremism to be a ‘virus’ or similar pathogen, looming in cyberspace and lying in wait for an opportunity to compromise someone’s ability to ‘develop the effective antibody of a critical mind.’ Concepts in chemistry were also lifted to describe extremist networks, who were thought to ‘quickly adapt and self-repair at the micro level, akin to the formation of covalent bonds.’ Amid new arrivals, one branch of the biological sciences became particularly prevalent in recent years – Ecology.
Ecology is generally considered a method of scientific study that encompasses both existing and emergent networks of biological and non-biological things as well as the nature of their interaction and development over time. Outside of biology, ecology has served as a classification system or theoretical architecture to structure and understand complex networks of human and non-human things. For instance, in popular fashion and often despite its composition or underlying processes, ecology was turned inward to expound human psychology, mapped onto human environments to manage their affairs, used to enhance systems of production, stratify societal development, and eventually distilled into formulas for understanding anomalous acts of violent crime (among many others). This reflects a trend in terrorism and violent extremism studies to adopt ecological terms and concepts to explore the fleeting yet interrelated and self-reinforcing nature of extremist networks in digital environments – increasingly referred to as an “online extremist ecosystem.”
The idea that extremist support networks can be understood as an ‘ecosystem’ has become popular in recent years. Ecology’s employment in terrorism and violent extremism studies shadows a wider move in the humanities and social sciences to theorize complex networks of human and non-human things. Ecological terms and metaphors appear with increasing frequency among far-right and jihadi studies: with the intention to map their online activity; provide a typology of their online spaces; or name and introduce one or another ‘ecology’. Despite of its popularity, an ‘online extremist ecosystem’ is yet to be theorized or conceptualized in any rigorous or consistent manner. Therefore, there remains important questions pertaining to its definition, form, and effect, such as: how should we characterize or conceptualize this ecosystem?; what does it consist of and why?; do ecological concepts or models offer descriptive or predictive value to the study of terrorism and violent extremism?; and what methodologies should we use to analyse or intervene in this ecosystem? In recognition of these gaps, we thought a cross-disciplinary discussion might help us achieve clarity on some of the benefits and limits of using ecology in cross-platform studies.
In the summer of 2022, Swansea University’s Great Hall hummed with conversation. Researchers, practitioners, and policy makers representing government, universities, and private companies, from a number of different countries and disciplinary backgrounds, were seated together waiting for the Terrorism and Social Media conference to begin. This annual international academic symposium in Wales (United Kingdom) – casually called “TASM” – represents an important occasion to participate in and be exposed to productive and pioneering discussions in terrorism and violent extremism studies. Months prior to the opening ceremony, Dr Julian Droogan, Lise, Waldek, Dr Brian Ballsun-Stanton, and myself recognized the conference to be well-positioned to host a round-table discussion on “online extremist ecosystems.” Following our consultation with conference organizer Professor Stuart Macdonald, we commenced plans to assemble participants for the international panel.
Panel and participants
Chaired by myself representing Macquarie University (Australia) and the University of Groningen (The Netherlands), the round-table discussion consisted of Dr Julian Droogan also from Macquarie University, Professor Noemie Bouhana on behalf of University College London (England), Dr Stephane Baele of the University of Exeter (England), Professor Maura Conway from Dublin City University (Ireland), and Swansea University’s Professor Stuart Macdonald. Due to its open-ended approach and eclectic mix of participants, the panel was soon titled, ‘Online Extremist Ecosystems? A Critical Cross-Disciplinary Discussion’.
To commence the panel, I asked the audience to raise their hand if they believed ecology is a valuable addition or at least holds great potential in terrorism and violent extremism studies? Approximately half the room raised their hand (selection bias aside). As their hands resettled, I asked the audience again to raise if they were concerned or doubtful of ecology in terrorism and violent extremism studies? Again, around half raised their hand with around half of those voting twice. Following this brief survey, we collectively agreed this panel represented an attempt to answer an important yet undecided question which loomed over the round-table discussion: do ecological terms and concepts give us a greater or lesser understanding of terrorism and violent extremism in cross-platform studies? While I cannot recapitulate all sides of our discussion here, I can give two interesting examples from our conversation: differences in how we conceptualize online-offline phenomena and the empirical implausibility of measuring an online extremist ecosystem.
Any human ecosystem must encompass social settings inside and outside of cyberspace. However, there are inconsistent descriptions of online-offline phenomena which presents a challenge to cross-platform studies seeking to use ecological terms and concepts. Terms such as ‘online’ and ‘offline’ and what concepts characterize their interplay feature broadly in the literature. For instance, the distinction between virtual and analogue space has been described as a dichotomy between two separate domains of experience. Rather than a dichotomy between two contextual extremes, this distinction was partially resolved into a continuum that exists in-and-between the online realm and offline context. Recently, this distinction has almost entirely dissolved into a nebulous space composed of a complex combination of simulated and material practices. When speaking about extremist ecologies and their products, like ideological fragmentation or how extremist violence emerges from digital environments, descriptions of online-offline phenomena were immediately scrutinized by almost all the panelists.
For instance, Noemie Bouhana suggested that terms such as ‘online’ and ‘offline’ betray reality because we seamlessly inhabit each domain of experience simultaneously, such as maintaining a presence on social media while being present in a crowded conference room. Instead, Noemie argued that the concept of ‘onlife’ ought to take precedence in ecological analyses of extremist networks. Extremists maintain their presence across networked social networking spaces – in and outside of cyberspace – and any attempt to use ecology must account for this dynamic integration of settings that cultivate moral and ideological assumptions. This hybrid conception fits the relational approach championed by ecology and as Stuart Macdonald emphasized, is increasingly the concern of violent extremism studies focusing on constellations social spaces and relationships over time. As the conversation progressed, Maura Conway also highlighted instances where their distinction is necessary and useful. Maura conceded that certain settings are inexorable with one another but explained how ideas and behaviours exhibited by extremists or born of their online community are quite distinct in each social sphere.
Ecologists use theoretical architectures to stratify networks of organisms and environments to better examine and estimate the degrees of influence their interactions exert on their respective development. When measuring these developmental changes, an ecologist is encouraged to empirically account for known and unknown environmental factors, layers, and processes that impinge on the organism’s interaction with and experiences in the ecosystem. Moreover, the entire ecosystem is considered a united driving force upon the organism’s development and constitutes their behaviour in each environment. These standards laid out by founding theorists presents an empirical problem that cannot be easily overcome in terrorism and violent extremism studies. In decades past, scholars occasionally used ecology to broadly stratify society into distinct ‘layers’ to understand how each layer contributed to an aspect of terrorism, or analyzed segments and contexts of those layers to understand the developmental effects of terrorism. However, the panelists agreed that retrieving sufficient evidence from multiple component parts of an online extremist ecosystem is extremely difficult, beginning with what are the known and unknown parts of the ecosystem and how do they individually and collectively impinge on those who dwell therein.
For instance, Julian Droogan suggested the field’s empirical problem is shared, at least in principle, with researchers in landscape archaeology. Once a landscape archaeologist himself, Julian described how difficult it was to obtain a comprehensive understanding of how individuals lived in ancient societies because there was a crucial missing piece: they did not have sufficient evidence about the development or behaviour of those who lived there. Alongside Stephane Baele, Maura Conway also echoed the need for evidence-based explanatory research during the panel and in her previous writings, suggesting that access to behavioural data which empirically shows causal connections is greatly needed.
The terms and concepts we use to analyse human ecosystems cannot be used without acknowledging their limitations, including differences in opinion and overcoming the empirical problem. There are clearly issues in non-critically adopting ecological terms and concepts as mere analogies or simplified formulas, and there remain fundamental inconsistencies in how we use ecology to analyse an interactive network of extremist communities. If portrayals of the ‘online extremist ecosystem’ continue to digress in different directions, the chance of scholars and practitioners talking across purposes will increase and what layers, factors, and processes are involved, as well as their anticipated influence on terrorism and violent extremism, will remain ambiguous. Such disharmony will affect the production of new frameworks and methods with explanatory and practical potential. During our discussion, for example, the potential for ecology to help construct comprehensive theoretical frameworks and regulatory responses were a key concern aired by Stuart MacDonald and Stephane Baele.
Yet, these issues and inconsistencies offer an opportunity to improve our understanding of human ecosystems. Little is known of the theoretical trajectory and empirical potential of ecology in terrorism and violent extremism studies, and in what ways can counter violent extremism intervention and policy be adapted to benefit from this research. Moving closer to consistency, each panelist referenced the importance of a shared vocabulary. Variety is inherent to terrorism and violent extremism studies and the preliminary use of ecology represents a constructive process of increasing conceptual sophistication in the field. However, with a shared vocabulary, scholars and practitioners can gain a greater theoretical grounding and avoid diverging in those terms and concepts essential for ecological analyses and implementing interventions in cross-platform environments.
This round-table discussion at the 2022 Terrorism and Social Media represented an innovative and emergent trend in terrorism and violent extremism studies. The cross-disciplinary panel showcased a foundational theoretical overview of the benefits and limitations of using ecology in cross-platform research, offering guidance through experience.
Mr Jade Hutchinson is a Cotutelle Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University (Australia) and in the Research Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands)
Image credit: Pexels