Feeling Terrified? The Emotions Of Violent Extremism

Earlier this year Step Together looked at Macquarie University’s research into the rise of far -right extremism online.  This month we again met with Lise Waldek, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie university, to discuss the research for her book “Feeling Terrified? The emotions of online violent extremism”, co- authored with Dr. Julian Droogan, Associate Professor of Terrorism Studies at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie Unversity, and Professor Catharine Lumby, from the University of Sydney. 

Step Together: Thanks for joining us again, Lise.  Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and what lead you to research the emotions associated with interest in violent extremist content online?  

The book presents original research into how young people interact with violent extremist material online, including terrorist propaganda. We explored the many emotional and behavioural responses discussed by young people. These challenged assumptions that terror and trauma are the primary emotional responses to these online environments. We became particularly interested in the relationship between emotions, violent extremism, and resilience through our broader work examining violent extremism and countering violent extremism initiatives and programmes. The book draws on research we conducted over four years including quantitative surveys and qualitative focus groups with young people.

How do young people find extremist content online? What sort of content are they exposed to?

Interestingly we found that what young people defined as violent and extreme content was far more diverse than traditional understandings of the term that often focuses on propaganda from specific groups and footage of terrorist attacks. The young people we spoke with also described gore, gang violence, suicide, violence against animals and documentaries on serial killers as violent extremist content. These diverse materials were encountered across multiple platforms. Sometimes content was sent directly through chat groups, or viewed following offline conversations, as well as occurring on individual’s timelines on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others.

How engaged are young people with extremist content online in Australia?

The young people we spoke with exhibited a broad range of behaviours following exposure to online violent extremist content. We found that while young people are not necessarily resilient enough to confidently navigate the extremes of online content, they did document a wide variety of existing strategies. These allowed them to curate their way through complex, and at times violent, extreme environments. Content was discussed online and offline, with group dynamics playing an important part in how young people engaged emotionally and behaviourally with the content. Young people expressed a preference for peer-to-peer communication that reaffirmed social norms that this type of content was wrong and shocking. However, they were also almost exclusively described as being relatively shallow and impacted by peer pressure to conform to the group. Some of our participants expressed that they did not have a great deal of guidance or insight about how best to navigate their encounters with violent extremist content. In our book we highlight how this gap may offer opportunities to build on emotional intelligence as part of a broader education around effective communication strategies.

What are the main things young people are looking for, emotionally and socially, in online interactions with extremist content or groups?

In our research we really saw the importance of sociality when seeking to understand how young people engage with online content including that of engagement with violent and extreme content. Many young people told us that how their peer group received, and navigated content influenced their own emotional and behavioural engagement with the content. Interestingly, peer group pressure is not in this space always negative. We also saw how this type of influence reinforced perceptions that this type of content was wrong and problematic. This finding may provide insights into opportunities to strengthen resilience in everyday dealings with violent extremist content. Another interesting finding was the repeated expression of curiosity as a central emotion experienced in response to this type of content. Curiosity is an emotion associated with a desire for information. While many of the young people discussed the taboo nature of the content as driving curiosity, they also expressed interest in finding out more about the content and the contexts in which these materials arise. Often this was expressed alongside a desire to learn more about events taking place across the world.

You talked to many young people for your research for this book.  What would be the most relevant take away for parents, carers, and youth workers from what you heard from young people?  

Our research highlights the critical importance of raising the voices of young people in discussions around the impact of online violent extremist content. Young people are not passive receivers of content but instead demonstrate a broad spectrum of emotional and behavioural responses to a diverse array of materials. Usually these drew on and reinforced a shared sense that this type of content, whilst interesting, remained morally distasteful and wrong. Interest and engagement with this type of content does not automatically point towards a descent into radicalisation towards violent extremism. At the same time, we also found that understandings of the phenomenon of violent extremism were really limited. Increasing understandings into strategies of violence and the aims/agendas of content producers represents an opportunity where educators and adults could increase resilience.

Thank you Lise. If readers would like to learn more you can purchase the book at many leading retailers, including:

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Last updated:

19 Oct 2023

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