9 Ways Governments Can Combat Violent Extremism Without Turning the Internet Into Big Brother

The follow is an essay by David Stevens and Kieron O'Hara, authors of the new book The Devil's Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace (Oxford University Press, 2015). The essay was created based on the main concepts in the book:


Adopting a religious doctrine or joining a group isn’t too unlike choosing whether or not to buy a book. There are lots of books out there, just as there are religious sects, and you make a selection from which you think are most likely to satisfy your preferences – a simple cost-benefit analysis. That isn’t to decry or denigrate any religious beliefs or belief in general. Rather, it is evident that, even in modern, prosperous information-rich democracies, religious belief hasn’t faded as early liberal commentators and psychologists predicted. People have strong spiritual needs; cost-benefit is one way of interpreting the choices they make.

Some people – for whatever reason – prefer a more intense experience from their religious observations. They want to be part of a tight-knit, dedicated group affirming the same world-view, sometimes in radical opposition to views seen as standard in the embedding society. They receive the goods of belonging, friendship, shared adversity, and emotional and physical support such groups bring. The costs of membership are often high – they demand large sacrifices – but the intensity of the experience outweighs them. Indeed, the costs of membership help ensure that everyone in the group is sharing the burden; there are no free-riders. Such people are not mentally ill, dumb, irrational, or easily duped. They just have a different set of preferences.

Although it has never had popular traction, this argument is not entirely new: for instance, writing in The Rebel of the anarchist terrorists in the final days of the Russian Empire, Albert Camus argued:

Secrecy compelled them to live in solitude. They did not know, except perhaps in the abstract, the profound joy experienced by the man of action in contact with a large section of humanity. But the bond that unites them replaces every other attachment in their minds. “Chivalry”, writes Sazonov, “our chivalry was permeated with such a degree of feeling that the world ‘brother’ in no way conveyed, with sufficient clarity, the essence of our relations with one another.” From prison, Sazonov writes to his friends: “For my part, the indispensable condition of happiness is to keep forever the knowledge of my perfect solidarity with you.” (p.136)

Nevertheless, a tiny minority is sometimes induced to let the tension with wider society spill over into violence. For such people, isn’t the web a game changer? Doesn’t it make extremist ideas more readily available, therefore drawing more people in, and thereby increasing the probability that a given radical will slide down the slippery slope to terrorism? Well, yes and no. There’s certainly more information available now via the web, and individuals can interact with others in a manner unimaginable twenty years ago. The web caters for a long tail of demand. As Cass Sunstein has warned, the arrival of more information, lower transaction costs and software to enable us to filter out unwelcome messages threatens to polarise debate. Tight-knit groups will speak only to themselves. But this is something of a side-issue.

Individuals are drawn to radical groups by that feeling of belonging to something special – the ideas themselves are not the attractors. Extremists are looking for an extreme experience, not any particular position.

Counterterrorism should be just that – a counter to terror. Those with extreme political views deserve to be debated with, if they obey the usual unwritten rules of debate, including according respect to their opponents. Those whose extremism takes a violent form should be treated as the criminals they are.

Governments possess coercive machinery to tackle extremely pernicious behaviour online just as they do in the offline case. Hate speech, incitement to violence, etc. are all crimes regardless of where they occur, and, ultimately, everything online is housed somewhere in the physical world. Governments can apply laws, remove cites, prosecute. Those who preach violence can be tracked, detained, prosecuted, and imprisoned, as can those who use the web to organise.

But what about the radical views, unsavoury to most? Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to crush, marginalise or eradicate them? Here we should be wary, to say the least. Government attempts to intervene with ‘counter-messages,’ moderate alternatives, censorship or ‘Englishness tests’ are at best misplaced, inefficient and often laughable, and at worst deeply counter-productive.

Government sponsorship or messages – the ‘establishment’ of religion via the seal of state approval – smack of thought control. Where governments throughout the world have sponsored state religions (much of Europe in modern times), congregations have dwindled in those churches. Meanwhile the congregations in enthusiastic and even chaotic Evangelical sects increase. Government’s dead ideological hand pushes people away from the moderate centre-ground towards the periphery. The pattern looks universal. Research on Islam and establishment throws up similar patterns.

In many countries, it is true that governments have an ambivalent relationship with extremists, sometimes encouraging them as well as cracking down. Yet that does not justify Salman Rushdie’s explanation that “Governments, from the Sunni side the Saudi government, on the Shia side the Iranian government, have been putting fortunes of money into making sure that extremist mullahs are preaching in mosques around the world, and in building and developing schools in which a whole generation is being educated in extremism.” Those governments’ suppression of civil society and economic activity are surely far more effective in driving their citizens to extreme measures than education, and in any case Rushdie ignores the global nature of the phenomenon. American Muslims are remarkably well-integrated – not coincidentally, the US has a flourishing market of religious ideas, and a free economy in which Muslims as a group are about average in earning power. European Muslims are comparatively less well-placed economically, while the state of most Arab economies is dire. Unsurprisingly, while most foreign fighters in Syria, for example, are from Arab countries, Europeans vastly outnumber Americans. Incidentally, there are more fighters from France than any other democracy, despite (or maybe because of?) its stringent anti-extremist laws. There are more Frenchmen fighting in Syria than Libyans, Iraqis or Chechens.

When a free ‘market’ of religion exists – if we may use that metaphor for a debating zone free from government interference – then a plethora of small but moderate groups is the norm. Groups compete with each other to obtain and retain members, and tend to congregate at the moderate centre-ground. So, there’s a race for the centre. Of course, radical groups remain – they always will, because of the unique set of goods they provide – but they will be less numerous than under establishment, and the pressures on groups to compete by moderating will be greater. Where governments intervene, clergy and leaders become less demand-orientated and more focused on retaining the contracts of their paymasters – an example of the phenomenon of ‘rent seeking’, a highly inefficient form of conducting business where customers lose out big-time.

The emergence of the web hasn’t changed this calculation. Although the costs of participation are lowered online, if a group wants to get any kind of political or religious sway in society it will eventually have to engage with others offline; its members cannot talk just to themselves, gazing into their navels. And, when it does engage, then it has to make its case in a language that others will find attractive or be persuaded by. Inevitably, this will mean it moderates. If it doesn’t it will likely remain out in the cold, and occupy, at best, a very marginal position (which may indeed suit the hardcore radicals).

Promoting moderate messages or censoring radical (but non-violent) views, or endorsing ‘official’ versions of faiths will empty the churches and provide grist to the mills of those who peddle fire and brimstone. Government is best served by concentrating on those who threaten violence regardless of the motive (religious or not) that drives it. Radical views and beliefs are a natural part of any free religious environment, and all but the tiniest minority of those adherents would ever dream of adopting violence as a means to achieve their ends, then seeking to counter the ‘evil ideology’ of religious radicalism is not simply looking for that needle in the haystack, it’s actually a red herring. The cure for radicalism is debate; the cure for violence is policing.

What, then, should governments do regarding online radicalization? There are many things that might be tried, and their freedom of action is only curtailed if:

  • They want to preserve their democratic credentials.

  • They want to preserve the utility of the Internet and the Web for the population at large and for specialist sectors such as academe and e-commerce.

  • They want their citizens to retain trust in the Internet.

  • They want the Internet to remain as secure as possible.

  • They want to act effectively.

Governments can implement almost any policy, as long as they do not mind being undemocratic, curtailing liberty, slowing down the Internet and turning their citizens away from it, and wasting their time with measures that will not work. However, as governments are likely to want to uphold the five conditions above, their hands will be tied quite tightly. This is not a bad thing. Mass surveillance, inserting cryptographical backdoors, acting for the sake of acting, and driving radical discussion underground are all counterproductive. There is no ‘solution’ to the problem of violent extremism – the violent are always with us – but equally governments can refrain from making the problem worse, and from having a negative effect on civil society and the Internet. What should they do then? Here are some suggestions from our book:

  1. Be patient and realistic. The media, including online media, thrive on immediacy and problems, with the result that governments are pressured into declaring immediate solutions. Violent extremism is not a problem that will go away quickly, and also not something that can be dealt with through grand gestures.

  2. Ideas are not the cause of terrorism: include those with hostile views of the mainstream in dialogue. Marginalizing radical voices within a democratic polity simply reinforces the oppositional tension that helps radical groups cohere.

  3. Consider the goods that extremist groups provide. In many cases these tend to be non-corrupt, effective and sensitive public services, and the group solidarity that many people seek. Hence an important aim for governments should be to ensure a range of goods provided by the state, non-governmental organisations and the commercial market that compete with the goods provided by extreme groups, to render the sacrifices pointless and the benefits nugatory.

  4. If you smoke democratic ideals, inhale them too. Sometimes they are inconvenient, but governments, and those who aspire to government, should emphasise their importance and be prepared to debate with anyone who explicitly or implicitly denies them.

  5. Respect nuance: do not be Manichaean. By labelling radical groups as part of an axis of evil, a democratic government is clearly accepting the extremists’ framing of the position (though with differing views about where good and evil lie).

  6. Find consensus. Where there is no strong consensus against a particular set of beliefs, or a particular type of action, then global action is unlikely to happen. Where democrats have demonstrably betrayed their own ideals, as often in the US war on terror, they will not be taken seriously internationally. For democrats, the moral high ground is vital for consensus-formation betraying democratic principles, even for the purposes of security and counterterrorism, is self-defeating in the long run.

  7. Do not blame the Web. It is a mistake to assume that the web plays a causal role in extremism. Terrorists use all sorts of public goods, such as transport networks; we do not assume these goods have causal powers and try to restrict their use. We should certainly expect terrorists to use the web, social media, email, smartphones and other such innovations as it makes sense for them to do so. The only way to prevent terrorists using digital networked technologies is to prevent a vast number of innocent people from using them too.

  8. Do not kill the Web. The web thrives on decentralisation, freedom and lack of regulation. The bottlenecks that regulation inevitably creates could strangle the web. Private-sector actors, particularly commercial ones, should be required to obey the law, but not police the Internet.

  9. Forget the needle: love your haystack. As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, if you want to find the needle in the haystack, the last thing you need is more hay. Contrary to the recent assertions of the head of MI5 and the head of the committee responsible for MI5’s oversight, we need careful, targeted, accountable intelligence-gathering – not sweeping surveillance of everyone (counterterrorism theatre at its worst, generating more data than anyone knows what to do with). The policing appropriate to the Internet age is closer to the intelligence-led policing of old, and the apparent gold mine of a vast quantity of data about our online activities will simply undermine relations between communities, individuals, technology providers, the police and the state. In other words, the terrorists would have succeeded in bringing chaos to their enemies.

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