(Young) Women’s Usage of Social Media and Lessons for Preventing Violent Extremism

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This Blog post summarises a conclusion paper from the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network

By Jordy Krasenberg and Julia Handle 

The perspective on the role of (young) women in extremism has changed over the last years towards better understanding of how women radicalise, how they are recruited, and what their role in terrorist or extremist organisations can be. For many years, the public view on the agency of women has been neglected or marginalised. 

One of the main challenges for an effective intervention is the fact that much of the interaction has moved online. Studies have shown that women spend more time on social media than men and that the internet and social media can serve as a gateway to extremism. Therefore, the (online) radicalisation of women in different extremist settings needs to be explored further and understood to a degree that practitioners can adjust their intervention accordingly.

The RAN small-scale expert meeting on (young) women’s usage of social media and lessons learned for preventing violet extremism (PVE) was aimed at unpacking some of the gaps. 

Ten highlights of the discussion

  1. Research suggests that men and women perceive political changes and socioeconomic issues significantly differently from one another. This, in turn, also suggests that (young) women may be driven into radicalisation by different push and pull factors than men. 
  2. Generally, (young) women will attract the attention of the media, especially related to radicalisation. Certain cultural frameworks define the role of women in society, giving them a certain space to act and certain conditions on socialising. This has meant that for many young women, the online space and social media are the most accepted spaces of engagement. 
  3. Although often perceived as victims of some extremist recruiter, women have a certain and at times very active or prominent position within extremist groups. In other cases, they have themselves been very active recruiters for terrorist purposes. 
  4. Talking about women also necessitates talking about men. This involves intersectional approaches and an understanding of gender constructs. Conversations were about relationships between genders and how these are perceived within certain communities. Much of the online engagement is about questions relating to sex, love, marriage (arranged, appropriate age), family, children, etc. 
  5. Especially in patriarchal families, but also generally speaking, fathers were often mentioned as pivotal figures. Their absence as well as their dominant role could play a big role in a woman’s vulnerabilities. These offline experiences can also impact young women’s online behaviour and the way they express grievances and vulnerabilities on social media. 
  6. In extremely conservative religious contexts, young women often only have limited access to information regarding highlights 3 and 4 in their offline world. The internet gives them a possibility to reach out, get information and connect. 
  7. The experts recognised the significant social media generation gap between young people and the practitioners who are supposed to prevent radicalisation. Although such differences are not new, social media’s rapidly changing landscapes make it challenging — if not impossible — for the often older practitioners to keep pace, adapt and stay agile. As soon as they begin to grasp the medium, it is already “uncool” for young people to engage on such a platform. 
  8. There is a difference in the way social media is used and, especially, which medium is used in various countries. As a result, social media use can be very country or culturally specific. For example, radical right and/or conservative groups are switching to Parler (instead of Facebook) in the United Kingdom/United States. This move is currently unique to the Anglo-Saxon world, but the experts mentioned that similar trends take place within the EU. It was dubbed the localisation of social media. 
  9. The relevant information is there to find vulnerable (young) women, but intervention means are currently missing. At times, professionals hide behind legal justifications, which limits options for adequate interventions. Some of those constraints are caused by GDPR, while others are hindered by a lack of political pressure. For practitioners, this means that they are much more restricted than extremist actors in online engagement.
  10. Practitioners are often funded by government money, which comes with certain restrictions to use all platforms. This makes setting up an intervention via social media very difficult. It was mentioned that when such restrictions have been lifted, it was already too late for those practitioners to still reach their target audience via these media because they had moved on to a new platform.

Vulnerabilities of (young) women and recruitment tactics

Taking control: Sometimes, (young) women’s lives are predestined by cultural norms or family pressure deciding on education, employment and marriage. Recruiters of extremist or terrorist organisations tap into these grievances by specifically propagating an independent and strong role for women within their organisation. They make women believe that they will have control over their life decisions and that they will be able to make a real difference by, for example, helping a specific cause. Some women also might feel underappreciated but at the same time overburdened in their lives, a grievance that recruiters use: “It’s hard to imagine a group like Daesh talking about women’s rights, but this was the language they used to draw some women into the group”. 

Discrimination: Especially in the context of Islamist extremism, women’s beliefs are often more visible as some of them wear a hijab, a burqa or a niqab. As a result, women can be a bigger target for public discrimination than men. This can be a major driver of radicalisation and be specifically used by recruiters who assure young women that they will be able to proudly wear their clothes once they join the organisation. 

Insecurity: Many girls, especially during puberty, and young women are insecure about their bodies. The World Health Organization has found that more girls than boys perceive themselves as being overweight, although they are not, during these years. At the same time, girls spend more time online than offline. This can be used by recruiters to highlight the double standards of modern society and to paint a picture of a different society that does not judge individuals based on their appearance. 

Sexuality: Naturally, teenage girls have many questions about their changing bodies and their sexuality. However, there is not always enough information about that for (Muslim) girls. While searching on the internet, girls and young women can come across extremist organisations offering this support. 

Purity trap: One specific approach employed by Islamist recruiters is to lure young women into a (sexual) relationship or to encourage them to send explicit photos of themselves to then pressure them into radicalisation to redeem their sins, as purity is one of the highest values amongst Islamist extremists. Guilttripping individuals into radicalisation is a common factor. Moreover, recruiters use the manipulation technique of “love bombing”, showering young women with love: “The aim is to create an emotional bond (friendship), which will in turn make it easier for the victim to be manipulated by the groomer. The groomer will aim to make the victim feel on top of the world, important, unmissable”. 

Domestic violence/abuse: Experiences from practice have shown that some women who radicalise have either grown up in a violent environment or experienced domestic violence or (sexual) abuse themselves. Many of them are attracted to the concept of hyper-masculinity (protection) or the domination of other people. In the right-wing context, this often includes the protection of women from the perceived threat posed by migrants.

Sisterhood: Especially in closed social media groups, girls and young women find like-minded peers who offer guidance and support. This sisterhood is often extremely tight and they discuss intimate topics such as sexuality. Women function as recruiters as much as men do and target (young) women in these circles.

To read the conclusion paper in full, including the expert group’s recommendations, click HERE.

Jordy Krasenberg is an advisor and coordinator with the Radicalization Awareness NetworkJulia Handle is a researcher at the Violence Prevention Network. On Twitter @HandleJulia

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