“Historically, mass radicalization has taken some time,” says Michael Jensen, an extremism expert who heads the national radicalization team of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). “But that’s no longer our reality.”
Jensen’s research has shown that over the past 15 years or so, the average time span of radicalization in the US has dropped from 18 to 7 months, mainly because our lives have changed a lot online. In the 1980s or 1990s, a right-wing extremist had to “know someone in your real life who was involved,” says Jensen. “They had to recruit you or give you the ideas. It was rather a pretty slow process. “
Jensen has become a leading figure in the fight against domestic extremism. And while it might be tempting to draw parallels between the insurgency and other extreme groups, he says America’s right-wing extremists are different than you might expect. Compared to extremists who are animated by left-wing extremist or jihadist beliefs, they radicalize later in life, are far more likely to have a violent criminal background and are more prone to substance use disorders. And where you can expect far-right groups – as they have long ago – to compete for recruits, attention and resources, that dynamic is now becoming a reality that poses an even greater threat. They band together.
“The most worrying thing we have seen in the past few years is this competition [on the far-right] is actually dwindling to some extent, and these groups have tried harder to connect and cooperate with each other, ”says Jensen. “To some extent, these groups came together on January 6th.”
What should we know about mass radicalization? Should we expect the future of American extremism to be much more like January 6th? And is there anything about American politics right now that fuels all of this?
To clear everything up, POLITICO Magazine spoke to Jensen this week. The following is a condensed copy of this conversation, edited for length and clarity.
This week, Americans were appalled by new footage of the Capitol attack. How does an extremism expert see what happened on January 6th?
From our point of view, it was a bit predictable. We saw the conditions come together that would make something like the January 6th uprising possible. We need to step back and talk about how mass radicalization is taking place and, more importantly, how mass mobilization is taking place, like it was January 6th. It wasn’t just the radicalization of beliefs; It was the mobilization of individuals in the name of those beliefs.
When we talk about radicalization, we usually talk about it at the individual or small group level. We talk about how Person X came to take an extremist position and act on it. We highlight things like personal grievances, their identity ambitions – maybe they were looking for thrills or meaning in their life and were thrilled with the promises an extremist ideology has made and that they would be revered as heroes if they attended. With small groups, we tend to talk about group cohesion. Individuals tend to isolate themselves among like-minded people – it’s just a natural human instinct. This usually creates echo chambers in which you hear the same ideas over and over and which are never questioned.
Dimensions Radicalization is a much larger phenomenon that tens of thousands – if not millions – of people are vulnerable to [extremist] Messages they get from really influential people. And then there could be movement to mobilize these people. They still talk about personal grievances, but there is a broader national political message there. [where] This is a battle between good and evil, in which the other side tries to undermine us and our way of life, and we all have a responsibility to challenge and confront the other side.
What causes radicalization on this type of mass scale?
First, you have to have a vulnerable audience that is receptive to the extremist narrative – people who are scared, angry, isolated, and looking for answers that satisfy their own personal prejudices and who try to blame someone else for their problems give. They find stories telling them that their problems are not their fault; It is the result of a conspiracy that seeks to undermine your way of life and wellbeing. These messages are deeply engaging as it is harder to look inside and question your own choices and behaviors. In the past year in particular, we had an unprecedented situation that made a very large audience receptive to these stories. The pandemic has scared people, with no work and looking for answers on what to do next.
The second thing you need is an influential voice to drive the extremist narrative. And in the last four and a half years we have had a very influential political leader [President Donald Trump] To advance a narrative that is not only polarizing – not only emphasizes that right and left are far apart on political issues and disagree on discretionary spending – but a narrative of “other things”. It is a narrative that the other side regards as evil, as “enemies”, as individuals whom one must fight against at all costs in order to preserve one’s way of life. We saw whether [Trump’s “others”] were Democrats, the news media, or the scientific community.
The last thing you need is a mechanism to get that narrative among the masses. Historically, mass radicalization took time. If an influential leader wanted to get a message out, he would do it through newspapers or political speeches in cities across the country, and it might take a while for that message to get out. But that is no longer our reality.
Our reality now is one where a radicalizing message can be sent to hundreds of millions of people in seconds. And if it catches on, you are practically guaranteed to do so millions of people will [believe] this narrative. We’ve seen this in the more traditional media, where media outlets like Fox News have some of these conspiratorial views, but we’ve also seen it with social media companies that didn’t get away with that rhetoric early on and instead let it fester.
These three conditions [make people] ripe for mass radicalization. And once that narrative turns into a call to action – if it’s not just about changing someone’s beliefs, it’s about inspiring them plot on these beliefs – you get January 6th. You get mass mobilization. We saw that.
The question is whether these conditions still exist. Does the future of extremism in this country look like January 6th or does it look like something we have been dealing with for several decades? In my estimation we are going back to some mean. The future of extremism in this country will not look like January 6, but it will look like what we have done for the past few decades. [with a] serious threats, we must challenge them in a very smart way.
You mentioned the role our current political dynamics play in promoting this environment. You have examined trends in radicalization that date back to the mid-20th century. Do you see politics driving people towards radicalization in ways that it was not a few decades ago?
Polarization is nothing new in American politics. There have always been multiple sides, and that gap has possibly widened over the past 20 years where there are only fundamental problems [on which] It’s hard to find common ground. It doesn’t always manifest itself in expression of violence unless it transforms into that “other” narrative.
It’s been a big change in the last few years: it’s not so much the other side disagrees with you on political issues; It is that the other side is in trouble undermining you and fundamentally challenging you and your way of life, and they do so for their own benefit and greed, and you must fight this at all costs. It is politically more lucrative for individuals to play polarization, to play their tribe against the other tribe. It makes more political sense for them to do these things than to be the old style leader trying to find a bridge and a middle ground.
The other big change is that we are now much more exposed to polarization. It’s so much easier to see how much we disagree. Every time you jump online, you are struck by the fact that your point of view is very different from that of your neighbor or anyone else in your family. We are faced with much more of this polarization, and I don’t know that we have found a way to talk constructively about these divisions with one another.
If you are likely to encounter political polarization every time you go online, and polarization can drive people to radicalization, does it mean that radicalization is happening faster now because of the internet?
The preliminary conclusion is that yes, the main effect of the internet on radicalization is that it speeds up the process significantly.
We did a research project looking into this for people in the US who tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to help the Islamic State. We tried to measure [the time between] their first encounter with extremist beliefs and when they were caught at that airport or got on that plane. We found that to be average [timespan] radicalization over the past 15 years had increased from about 18 months to 7 months. The only thing that really changed during this time was the fact that these communities are now thriving online.
Think of someone in the 1980s or 1990s who radicalized into the “white power” movement. You had to know someone in your real life who was involved in this. They had to recruit you or give you the ideas. This has usually been a fairly slow process – a process that for a lot of people didn’t happen. Now it’s just a click away. It’s really easy to find. Once you become interested in these points of view, the way social media platforms are set up is to immerse you in their surroundings for as long as possible. If you’re interested in an extremist view, the algorithm says, “Well, you like this extremist stuff, so we’re going to give you more of it.” You fall into the rabbit hole. You isolate yourself into an echo chamber where you only hear the extremist narrative and you hear praise for those who acted on behalf of the viewpoints. So [for instance,] You hear a narrative praising the Dylann roofs of the world [Roof is a white supremacist who murdered nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015] for taking a stand and fighting for the cause.
Not only is it a hyper-radicalizing environment, but also a hyper-mobilizing environment that has encouraged you to do something 24 hours a day. This has a rather dramatic effect in accelerating the radicalization process.
How does it actually look like when you talk about American extremism “going back to the mean”?
I think the overarching characteristic of extremism in the United States is its diversity in the viewpoints it holds, the characteristics of the people who hold those viewpoints, and the actions and behaviors that individuals represent for them Beliefs.
We have always had a variety of extremist views in the United States. Forever we had white supremacist and white nationalist narratives. These were paired with narratives on the far left – the social justice narratives that promoted violence in the 1960s and 70s and then turned into extremists on animal rights and eco-terrorism. We had anti-government views. “Sovereign Citizens” and the “Patriot” movement have been around for a long time. We have had jihadist-inspired characters and narratives. And then we have this kind of “edge” that we don’t really know where to put.
However, it is important to realize that there is no like [threat] Level above these ideologies. Our data suggest that right-wing extremist views are the most prevalent extremist views in this country.
In your studies, you have found that right-wing extremists in the United States tend to become more radical later in life than right-wing extremists or jihadist extremists. They also found that, statistically, they had a history of violent criminal activity much more often – about 25 percent of right-wing extremists, compared with 11 or 12 percent of jihadists or left-wing extremists. What explains this difference?
In relation to extremist individuals [overall]If you look at the backgrounds, you will see everything you can imagine. You see well-adjusted individuals who have good jobs, are married and married with children, but may have some identity needs that are not met, who want to matter more than they think, and find extremist narratives appealing. We see people who had terrible lives – victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as children; People with substance use disorders who join an extremist movement because it gives them access to friends, parties and drugs. We see young people. We see old people. We see people with mental illness. We see people without mental illness.
If we look at people on the far right, we see much higher rates of previous crime history that have nothing to do with their ideology. We are seeing much higher rates of substance use disorders. We see somewhat older people. And the reasons for this can be complicated.
Far-right narratives are often appealing [more] to the elderly. “Grievance” narratives are often tailored to people who have unfulfilled expectations about the way their lives should turn out – people who are already in their lives and in which they have a career and family and identity within Community should have established. The narrative really speaks to her: all of your ambitions have been foiled by this evil “other” who is working to undermine you.
There’s also a decently high rate of people with prior military experience in [far-right] Communities. These people are usually a little older because they previously served in the military. You are the most recruited of all. They have a number of skills that these groups find really attractive. The oath guardians, for example, are [active in] Military recruitment and law enforcement.
The last thing worth mentioning in regards to these more troubling properties: [like] Substance use disorders, mental illness, history of past trauma: These are very high in certain extremist groups as these people are the most susceptible to recruitment. Far-right groups know this. They find people who have these characteristics and promise them companionship. They promise them a “party scene” to be part of and a rather radical change in their life. While jihadist groups often shy away from recruiting people who they believe have mental health or substance use issues, for white supremacist groups this is their bread and butter.
If the far right party is bigger, how does this manifest in competition between far right groups? Does that make recruiting more intense? I could also imagine that this leads to an urge to commit larger acts of violence in order to advertise.
This is definitely a problem. Outside of the US, there are some scholarships that suggest that if these groups compete with one another, they will be given a solo assignment, which can lead to more extreme behaviors. You are trying to assert yourself as the leader of a movement and the way you do it is to show that you are ready, willing, and able to take the most extreme measures.
The most worrying thing we have seen in the past few years is this competition [on the far-right] is actually waning to some extent, and these groups have tried harder to connect and cooperate with each other. We begin to see neo-Nazis and proud boys adopting part of the language of the QAnon community – talking about pedophilia and a “satanic cabal” – to form a bridge.
What is responsible for this change, where competition has decreased in favor of collaboration, or at least appeasement?
I think it is the realization that they feel they have a common enemy – the “left” and liberal America – and they are willing to overlook differences in order to unite against that common enemy because it is more effective is than walking alone. They are stronger together. They can push their narratives further [effectively]. You can show demonstrations by force. If only the Proud Boys show up, it probably won’t be the most amazing demonstration, but if they can get the oath guardians and “sovereign citizens” and QAnon supporters to show up, it is quite a significant display for the movement.
The “Unite the Right” rally [in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017] It was about bringing these different groups together against a common cause and a common enemy. So far we’ve really only seen this in rhetorical online collaboration, and that is then spilled offline in relation to marches and demonstrations. To some extent, these groups met on January 6th. You saw everyone from neo-Nazis to QAnon supporters to Proud Boys marching on the Capitol that day.
Given that, should we expect more January 6th-style riots in the future, or do you see this as more of an anomaly?
I have had colleagues – people I admire and really respect – who indicate that we are facing a mass movement that is ready, willing and able to engage in unprecedented levels of violence. This is a position that I respectfully disagree with.
The conditions that made January 6 possible were kind of a perfect storm that we may not get any more. I think the conditions have now changed. Political leadership has largely disappeared, and those who drove it [extremist] Narration were silenced. Well that could be temporary or long term, but right now it looks like it has some staying power. At this point, [major] Social media platforms take action against their advertising [extremist] So we’re seeing individuals move to smaller platforms. Telegram, Parler and Gab just don’t have the reach of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. You can reach millions of people, but you can’t hundreds of millions.
There is also a change for the audience themselves. The vulnerability and receptivity gradually decrease. Life will return to normal at some point. People will go back to work. You won’t be so isolated and scared anymore. You just can’t be that receptive [to extremist narratives].
It is also very important to realize that many people were encouraged by what happened on January 6th, but many were demoralized and demobilized. We saw this in the QAnon community. We have seen this in communities that have fueled conspiracies related to electoral fraud. Many people expressed their concern about it The wasn’t where they were looking for movement and they have really started moving away from it.
We need to realize that it is a thing for people to change theirs Viewsand a completely different one for people to change theirs Behaviors. Most people who radicalize on their views will not mobilize for them – they will not pick up a gun and go to a mall and open fire on unsuspecting innocent people. This is not the most common finding for radicalizing individuals. We have to be really smart about how we react to this. Overreacting can do more harm than good.
However, that seems like a difficult calculation. Is it enough for a radicalized person to simply be non-violent without changing their underlying beliefs? Do we see this as a success or are the views themselves a threat?
I don’t think it is good for the social fabric of our country for individuals to believe conspiracy theories and extremist views. But it’s not illegal. Individuals can have these beliefs if they want. What is Is illegal if they mobilize for them and harm someone else or commit another crime in the name of those beliefs. That is exactly why we have the legal authority to do something. When we talk about it Guidelines that we can act sensibly in this country, then we talk about preventing people from engaging in illegal behavior.
For the social well-being of our country, I hope that we will encourage more mainstream rhetoric in the next few years. I hope that we will gather science, evidence, and facts about the position they used to have and that these narratives are not so widespread because they are bad for our democracy and our communities.
Can there be such a thing as mass? deRadicalization? And if radicalization can happen online very quickly, can deradicalization happen online at all?
This is a tough question as, with our modern communication technologies, we have no experience dealing with something like a mass de-radicalization program. In the historical examples that we can refer to – Nazi Germany and such places – the tools used are simply not applicable in our situation. Our campaign will look much more like a public awareness campaign than a systematic program to change the way people think about the world.
So is it possible? Probably, but we just have no experience with it.
A reasonable starting point is to expect the voices to really matter. Who are the people providing the narrative that seeks to deradicalize or demobilize people? Right now you have a collective of people who deeply distrust the other side. President Biden, who comes out and says, “Let’s all get together and solve our problems,” may not be effective because he is part of the “enemy” group for these communities. We need to see individuals come out of these tribes and say, “OK, enough is enough. We have to find ways to solve our problems peacefully and find common ground. “The Republican leadership will play a fundamentally important role.
What should President Biden do for political reasons?
This is not a problem that we can or should try to stay out of. There are people who pose real threats and should be prosecuted. But when the only tools in our arsenal are arrests and incarcerations, we stand a chance of causing far more harm than good. If we believe that January 6th is a sign of things to come and requires massive action, we can encourage ill will and distrust and feed directly into the extremist propaganda that is being used to radicalize more people. January 6th could be a bit of a “black swan” and we shouldn’t overreact. We should have a measured response.
I am cautiously optimistic that we are in a good place in this regard as Biden of the [Obama] Administration, [which] have tried to diversify the tools that we use to address this issue. Investing in community-based programs targeting those at risk that aid rehabilitation for people who may have gotten into trouble because of their extremist beliefs and may have gone to jail and now back in their communities. Actions that don’t just jail people – actions that actually try to help people and improve lives – play a huge role in deradicalizing people.
However, we need to recognize that things that are beyond our immediate control affect our ability to drive deradicalization. This pandemic is a huge pain. When so many people are unemployed and isolated and alone and scared, then you are bringing people back to work and getting life back to normal as much as possible [are important goals]. You can see a real calming, deradicalizing effect as conditions in the world improve over the next year or two. And within a few months we could be in a much better position than we are now.
From a law enforcement perspective, they have taken a much more balanced approach to addressing these challenges in recent years. They take the domestic extremist threat much more seriously. It’s not just a unique focus on the jihadist threat from abroad. That’s a good, productive change. We can reinstate some of them [Countering Violent Extremism] Programs we started in 2011 that the Trump administration effectively killed; We didn’t even really get to a point where we could judge how effective they were because they didn’t last long enough. Invest in public awareness campaigns and public health campaigns. Invest in communities and give them the resources they need to help individuals. That will be a big part of the tide reversal here.
None of this will ever completely eliminate the problem. They are just trying to get the problem to a point where it is manageable and we can live with it. It’s not that high a bar.