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Legitimising the Discourses of Radicalisation: Political Violence in the New Media Ecology

The research explored the 'new' environment of conflict in the post-9/11 age in which there appears to be emerging threats to security and stability in the shape of individuals and groups holding or espousing 'radical' views about religion, ideology, and often represented in the media and by politicans as oppositional to 'Western values'. What is 'new', if anything is there about these 'radicalising' discourses and trends, how and why do these relate to 'political' acts of violence and terror, and what is the role of the mass media in promoting or hindering them?

Our project treated the idea of 'legitimacy' as central to the development of and support for radicalising views and terrorist acts. This includes the ways in which these are represented in the news media and the apparent ease and speed with which those that espouse and carry out political violence can attract global media attention, and thus 'access' to audiences and so the potential to influence policy-makers. These trends have been considerably accelerated with the advent of so-called 'new media', and particularly the internet, and ‘Web 2.0’, which cheaply and effectively facilitate the organisation of groups and 'networks'. This is the 'second generation' of internet services including social networking sites that enable online collaboration and sharing among users.

Our approach was divided into three interconnecting strands of research involving academic experts in different fields. The first investigated how Web 2.0 blogs, chatrooms, social networking and other forums were being used to spread ideas that might be considered to be ‘radicalising’ in advocating political or religious acts of violence and terror, particularly against Western cultures and institutions. This work included exploring how these messages and acts published or broadcast on the web were supported and 'legitimated'. The second strand of research examined how the acts themselves and explanations for them on the web are 'picked up' and represented in the mainstream television news media, through the journalistic and editorial uses of words, phrases, graphics, images, videos etc. Finally, the third strand explored how interpretations of the term 'radicalisation' are shaped by news representations through investigating audience responses, understandings and misunderstandings.

Instead of focusing on just one medium or event, the project employed the three strand approach as a way of tracking and understanding how support for political or religious violence emerged and shifted over time across different media and in response to events considered as newsworthy in national and global news cultures. In this way, we pioneered a ‘new media ecology’ approach to studying radicalisation and violence, placing these issues in the context of our new dynamic media age in which places, events, people and their actions and inactions, seem increasingly connected.

The main findings of the study are:

Even jihadist sympathisers feel detached from the Al-Qaeda core.
The jihadist media culture is made up of core websites featuring members who are committed without deviation or question to the jihadist campaign. Outside the core is a ‘grey zone’ of individuals who potentially have sympathy for the campaign but question the legitimacy of some violent acts, particularly violence that kills Muslims or civilians. The core members offer little guidance or recognition to potential sympathisers, who have to turn to mainstream media such as BBC or Al-Jazeera to find out what core Al-Qaeda have been doing.

Journalists and experts remain uncertain about the nature of ‘radicalisation’.
There remains little pattern to who is radicalised – it can be people of different ages, religions, levels of education, and socio-economic class, making prediction very difficult. Mainstream news media, which must find facts to report, struggles when few facts are available and security services may be slow to release information. The result is news coverage that ‘clusters’ different signs of radicalisation, often taken from eye witnesses who may be unreliable: “he suddenly grew a beard”, “she became much more religious”, “they always met after Friday prayers”. Since these ‘signs’ apply to large numbers of people, mainstream news coverage may inadvertently contribute to stereotyping, particularly of British Muslims.

Ordinary citizens do not trust news about ‘radicalisation’.
Government and media discourses of radicalisation are not credible or trustworthy to many ordinary citizens. UK news publics are uneasy with the concept of radicalisation in their everyday engagement with the domains of politics and religion. So, if de-radicalisation plays a role in counter-terrorism policy in the UK and citizens are not convinced what radicalisation might mean in the first place, this has consequences for the legitimacy of UK security policy. Our research reveals that news reporting of issues related to ‘radicalisation’ has not helped to clarify its meaning or its legitimacy in the public understanding of Government strategy on terrorism.