Expert sounds warning on the impact of social media on radicalization

Martin Banks
SAINT-DENIS near Paris, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 18, 2015 : intervention of the French anti-terrorist force to stop the radical Islamists involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015.

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), Radicalisation continues to present “huge threats and challenges”

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a policy debate on the impact of geopolitical developments, such as the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, on radicalization in Europe.

Gülden Hennemann, an expert on radicalization, extremism, and prevention, said there had been a “complete shift” in the way extremist groups of all colors, from left and right to Islamists, operate and recruit.

“Radicalisation may not be new but, today, the way such groups can reach out to people is new,” she declared.

Organisations can use social media platforms to engage people on an ’emotional level’ and this is a key game changer.

Hennemann is head of the Central Coordination Office for Measures against Extremism (ZKE) in the Bavarian Prison System but was speaking in a private capacity.

In her speech in Brussels on 26 April, she began by recounting an incident that happened when, in her mid-20s, she tried to enter a mosque in Germany during a political visit by a German politician. She was refused entry because of her gender.

“There is no rule that says a woman cannot enter a mosque,” she noted, “and as a woman coming from the same culture and religion, this had a real impact on me. I understood that something was going wrong in my country, Germany, and I decided to speak out and work on these issues.

Hennemann, who has worked in counter-extremism for more than 15 years, said: ‘I had hoped that things would get better over time, but in fact they are getting worse, and I see this at a day-to-day operational level.

“The radicalization process is still not being understood.”

Geopolitical developments in the world, from Ukraine to the Middle East, have a direct impact on the dynamics of radicalisation in Europe, she told the meeting, adding that such conflicts have consequences for far-right, Islamist, and far-left radicalisation in Europe.

Authoritarian countries and regimes, as well as radical groups, also exploit these conflicts for their own agendas, she believes.

She added that it was “not new” that geopolitical developments impact radicalisation but added, “However, the main change is that there are now new tools available to those who want to radicalize others.”

In the past there were just a few newspapers and a handful of tv programs, “but now, with the internet and social media, there has been a complete shift in how groups can reach out. They just go online and don’t care about the narrative they use.”

The coronavirus pandemic, she believes, also provided a major  “boost” for online radicalization and, today, applications and electronic devices enable organizations to “connect globally” and disseminate propaganda and information “in seconds.”

Such information is often “incorrect and not based on fact” but is “very good” at appealing “on an emotional level.”

She said most conflicts, including the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s and now in the Middle East “always have an impact on the radicalisation process.”

In the past, this was facilitated by video tapes and cassettes, but radical groups now use their own channels. “The impact, with the help of social media, is huge”.

Hennemann noted that Brussels itself had first-hand experience of terrorism – the terror attacks in 2016 – but cautioned, “We are nowadays so afraid of terrorist  attacks that we focus so much on finding terrorists instead of concentrating on the root causes and why these people became terrorists.”

She has been involved in countering terrorism in Bavaria since 2009  and, in her current role, she is responsible for some 36 prisons in the region.

Geo-political tensions, disinformation and propaganda by certain countries and radical organizations, and conspiracy theories have a major impact on radicalisation, she noted, adding that “democracies are under enormous pressure and our democratic values are under threat”. Some countries and groups want to destabilize Europe and legitimize their actions, she said.

The 43-year-old added, “We have almost lost another generation and I firmly believe that, today, if we really want to reach out we must start with very young children. If you leave it later I am not sure you will have any impact. This is important to understand.”

Radical groups use many local groups and organizations and that’s why we have to be careful about such links, she said, noting that organizations like Samidoun are among them. Samidoun is a banned organization in Germany, in part because of its links with Hamas.

In a Q&A that followed, she was asked about Samidoun and what evidence there was for banning the organization, given that it is free to operate in Belgium.

She noted, “There has to be sufficient evidence to ban a group – you cannot just ban an organization because you might not like its views. So the German government must have seen a threat from this group, including its funding, ideology and links”. She said authorities in other countries should “take a close look” at organizations like Samidoun and its structures.

Unfortunately, some European organizations and NGOs also support the propaganda and legitimization of such organizations, says Hennemann, adding that “we have to be very careful what we defend and what narratives we use, so as not to be used by such radical organizations”.

She noted that after Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, which left well over 1,000 dead, Hamas supporters in Germany held spontaneous celebrations that were seen as glorifying the attacks.

“We Germans are very sensitive about the Hamas-Israel conflict. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization that oppresses its own people, and on 7 October they crossed a red line.”

“Freedom of expression is fundamental to our liberal democracies. However, praising terrorism and violence cannot be considered freedom,” she noted, adding that “certain groups are trying to use the Hamas-Israel conflict for their radical agendas, recruitment, and propaganda, and we must be very vigilant against such efforts”.

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Martin Banks is an experienced British-born journalist who has been covering the EU beat (and much else besides) in Brussels since 2001. Previously, he had worked for many years in regional journalism in the UK and freelanced for national titles. He has a keen interest in foreign affairs and has closely followed the workings of the European Parliament and MEPs in particular for some years.