Staying safe online

The violent extremism landscape is fluid and complex and new threats are constantly emerging and becoming new focus areas of academic research. While a relatively new area and statistics are yet to be determined we do know that extremists can exploit the internet to target people with their ideologies and recruit them to their cause. They use a variety of tactics to manipulate individuals and lure them into their extremist beliefs. For parents it’s vital to be aware of the ways in which extremists can target people online and how best keep our most vulnerable safe from predators.

  1. Social media: Extremists often use social media platforms to find vulnerable individuals and build relationships with them. They may create fake profiles to appear more trustworthy and use targeted ads to reach specific audiences.
  2. Online forums: Extremist groups also use online forums and message boards to spread their message and recruit new members. They use these platforms to share their beliefs, engage in discussions, and create a sense of community.
  3. Propaganda videos: Extremists create and share videos that promote their ideologies and showcase their activities. These videos can be highly persuasive and emotional, and are often designed to evoke fear and anger in viewers.
  4. Chat rooms: Extremist chat rooms are another way that extremists connect with potential recruits. They use these chat rooms to share information, discuss their beliefs, and offer support to those who may be questioning their own beliefs.
  5. Online gaming: Online gaming platforms have become a new avenue for extremists to connect with potential recruits. They use gaming communities to recruit individuals who may be vulnerable and seeking a sense of belonging.
  6. Conspiracy theories: Extremists often use conspiracy theories to appeal to individuals who may feel marginalised or disillusioned with mainstream society. They use these theories to create a sense of shared identity and to promote their extremist beliefs.

It's important to be aware of these tactics and to be vigilant when using the internet. By educating ourselves and others about these tactics, we can help prevent extremist ideologies from spreading online.

Step Together spoke with two academics from Charles Sturt University on the issue to get a better understanding on the latest developments in this space.

Dr Kristy Campion is a Senior Lecturer in Terrorism and Security Studies, and Australia's leading expert on right wing extremism and terrorism. She started in this field in 2012 as part of the generation that grew up under the auspices of the War on Terror.

Dr Emma Colvin is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Criminology in the Centre for Law and Justice at Charles Sturt University. Her research explores different aspects of access to justice for vulnerable/marginalised groups.

Right Wing Extremism has a long history in Australia but why do you think it is on the rise and what groups are emerging?

K: There wasn't a lot of support for right wing research or even interest, to be honest. And then the horrific attack occurred in Christchurch in 2019 and suddenly there was awareness, and this research now has real world significance… Australia is in a really dynamic place in terms of extremist ideologies. We are seeing relatively new and contradictory ideologies emerging and these ideologies  are supporting violence against other people in our community. These are ideologies that we need to understand and work towards. Some of these ideologies can be deceptive in that they present as one thing but may really be another. Some experts are calling this phenomena ‘fused extremism’ or ‘salad bar ideologies,’ which is essentially where you might have an individual who's adopted all these different beliefs about the world and about the people in their communities. And none of those beliefs make any sense. They can form a complex mix of ideas that ultimately shape how an individual sees the world. When such individuals see the world as broken or decaying or damaged and they start to think that the only solution to fixing it is violence, then we've got an ideology that can potentially cause harm in our communities.

One of the things that we can draw a line between is the lone actor who might receive assistance or support from someone in the community and someone who's actually part of a movement and they represent quite different threats. A movement's is going to have more resources, more personnel, a greater capacity to undertake a complex operation. However, the movement less reactive, in that the movement attempts to control its members through internal constraints. Lone actors are a bit more unpredictable because there's no internal handbrake there. There's no friend or group or movement saying, hey, we think violence is actually a bad move. So the lone actors can be extremely violent and we have witnessed that over the past decade.

We are seeing an increase in right wing activities, especially in our youth, what methods are these groups using to recruit members, especially with youth?

E: What we know from previous research into how children are exploited – whether into ideological causes, criminal offending or both, is that vulnerable young people are targeted – e.g. children who are marginalised, children who are criminalised.

K: When it comes to the recruitment question…I think this comes down to the community. In the extreme right, they often recruit online, sometimes  via encrypted social media via gaming chats via forums… They are digital natives. They use the same technology that we use all day, every day and we should be expecting that they're going to use that technology to serve their ends. But on the other side of recruitment question is the offline dynamic, which is meeting people, making friends, engaging in extracurricular activities. The role of community is essential because, for as long as we have researched the organized extreme right, we have seen them deliberately creating community events, and they do that because they want to keep people in their community.

What makes youths vulnerable to grooming?

E: children who may feel marginalised or ostracised and are looking for something to belong to – attachment theory in psychology provides some understanding of the impact of childhood trauma, e.g. abuse, neglect, removal from family, on a child. This can leave them vulnerable to predatory adults looking to exploit/recruit etc.

At what point do you think a young person start to show the difference between an avid gamer vs getting pulled down a rabbit hole of being groomed in ideology?

E: There may be many young people who are groomed into ideologies but taking action is a different step. Also, we still don’t know how important the ideology itself is in recruitment. This is something Kristy and I are interrogating in our new work. Essentially, can children really hold strong ideological beliefs in their own right and not just be parroting what an adult has indoctrinated them into? As a society we don’t believe that children hold strong enough political beliefs to vote – so how can they be seen to genuinely be holding ideological beliefs of their own…

K: gaming is not necessarily far right. So I would say the point in which you probably should start being concerned is when the gaming becomes something that's not just about the game, it's not just about shooting zombies: it becomes political or it starts to lead to hate speech. Young gamers might become quite targeted towards members of their own community, and also towards people who they believe shouldn't be in their community… It's not necessarily the gaming content or the even the gaming culture itself, but it's the deviations from that culture. With respect to the rabbit hole, we need to consider if someone wandered down it accidentally versus being deliberately led. I would say the distinction lies with who exactly is leading you down that particular path.

What should you look for to help reduce the risk of someone close being at risk of being groomed online and what steps can parents take to keep their kids safe?

E: I think there needs to be ongoing education on online safety for parents, teachers and children. Parents need to have an idea of what their child is doing online and who with. This can be tricky to manage but open conversations with children and encouraging honesty can help. However, underlying vulnerability of children is really what needs addressing – preventing predatory adults from recruiting children needs to be a focus.

K: Try and see what they are seeing. Sometimes it will give you insight into something they're struggling with, like if they're trying to make sense of their place in the world. Knowing what your child is doing online and who they're doing it with is essential to any child’s safety. That assists of course, not just with terrorism and extremism, but with other online and offline threats. Beyond that, it's also about recognising that kids can be curious…they're trying to learn about the world and they're getting so much information from so many different sources… sometimes they might end up on the wrong side of the Internet, in the wrong forums, in the wrong web chats. And I think that's when you need to start having some conversations and seeking some further information.

The internet provides a wealth of information and entertainment, but it also comes with risks. Here are some tips to help keep your kids safe online:

  1. Establish rules and guidelines: Set clear rules and guidelines for internet use in your home. This can include limiting screen time, monitoring online activity, and prohibiting certain websites and apps.
  2. Educate your kids: Teach your kids about online safety and the potential risks of the internet. Talk to them about the importance of protecting their personal information, being cautious when communicating with strangers, and avoiding clicking on suspicious links.
  3. Use parental controls: Most devices and internet service providers have parental controls that can help limit access to inappropriate content and monitor online activity.
  4. Monitor social media use: Social media can be a source of cyberbullying and inappropriate content. Monitor your child's social media activity and make sure they are using it responsibly.
  5. Keep devices in public areas: Keep devices such as smartphones and tablets in public areas of your home to discourage inappropriate online behavior and ensure that your child is not communicating with strangers.
  6. Stay involved: Stay involved in your child's online activity and know what they are doing online. Ask them about their favorite websites and apps, and encourage them to talk to you if they encounter any issues or concerns.
  7. Model responsible behavior: Set an example for your kids by modeling responsible online behavior. This includes avoiding sharing personal information online, being cautious when communicating with strangers, and avoiding inappropriate content.

Keeping your kids safe online requires diligence and effort, but it's an essential part of being a responsible parent. By establishing rules and guidelines, educating your kids, using parental controls, monitoring social media use, keeping devices in public areas, staying involved, and modeling responsible behavior, you can help keep your kids safe and protected in the digital age.

Some useful resources

“These resources and the associated intellectual property are owned and produced by the eSafety Commissioner - Australian Government”.

Information about online harms for young people

Some content that may be relevant to your audience:

General information about reporting online abuse

Resources and learning for parents and carers

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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