The role of the Internet and social media in radicalization and deradicalization

While radicalization may primarily play out in the “real world”, extremists have been adept internet users since the very dawn of the Internet itself. They not only keep up with technological developments, they expertly use these to achieve aims – as a medium for propaganda, recruitment, logistics and financing their teams. Today, the Internet has become one of the primary spheres of activity for radicalized groups. Accordingly, there has been a substantial and growing range of research addressing the role the Internet and social media in processes of radicalization and deradicalization.

Two key findings should be highlighted: First, “online extremism” is not particularly innovative but, rather, merely represents a conventional way to use the Internet. Second, the assumption (promoted, in particular, by political decision-makers) that we can draw a clear differentiation between “online” and “offline extremism” is misguided. Measures aimed at combating “online radicalization” only succeed when the interplay between virtual and real-world radicalization is taken into consideration.

One question that ultimately arises here is how to counteract online extremism. Possible counter-measures range from censorship and account deletion to strengthening civil society and promoting the development of counter-narratives. However, not all measures are equally effective, and each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages that must be considered in the respective context.

The report (in German)

PRIF Report 10/2018
Die Rolle des Internets und sozialer Medien für Radikalisierung und Deradikalisierung
Peter Neumann // Charlie Winter // Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens // Magnus Ranstorp // Lorenzo Vidino


[Download PRIF Report 10/2018]

The film (German w/ English subtitles)

Film "Role of the Internet" |  Length 6"50' |  Realisation Philipp Offermann with Manuel Steinert // Lilli Kannegießer |  Subtitles Philipp Offermann |  Translation Nick Gemmell|  HSFK 2018

Policy recommendations

  1. Counter-measures require a balanced mix of defensive and offensive approaches. Political strategies must consider that “online extremism” is not a monolithic phenomenon. Additionally, more extensive research should be done on the effectiveness of stricter measures compared to softer measures. One recent finding, for example, has shown that attempts to censor content or apply pressure to the operators of online platforms merely leads extremist groups to find alternative platforms. Research with a longer-term perspective is needed for further studies.
  2. Improved cooperation between public (e.g., state) and private actors (e.g., social media or file-sharing companies) is essential in the fight against extremism. Further research is also needed in this area, such as studies to assess the practical outcomes that algorithm-based measures can achieve.
  3. To this end, additional time must be spent investigating and evaluating public-private partnerships and shed light on just how successful counter-narrative campaigns can be.
  4. Political decision-makers should clearly position themselves in relation to the legal and ethical implications of strict measures such as media censorship and blocking user accounts. More resources should be invested into researching how far-right extremists use the Internet and subsequently comparing these findings to currently predominant research work being conducted on jihadist “online extremism”.

Project members


  • Peter Neumann
    International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), London


  • Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
    George Washington University, USA
  • Magnus Ranstorp
    Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies (CATS), National Defence College, Sweden
  • Lorenzo Vidino
    George Washington University
  • Charlie Winter
    International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), London