Countering violent extremism online: understanding adversity and adapting in an increasingly complex digital environment – News Block

Research questions

  1. What opportunities are there to improve EV counters online?
  2. Does VE online require different policy settings?

In this report, the authors seek to understand how violent extremists behave in an increasingly complex online ecosystem. Characterized by technological innovation and platform diversification, this ecosystem offers significant utility and advantages to violent extremists. Questioning the variety of tactics and strategies being used globally, the authors identified gaps in understanding the expansive contours of the online violent extremism (VE) landscape. The study highlights the extent to which these challenges require better policies.

Violent extremists have learned to adjust their behavioral stance through a variety of tactical measures to evade common counterattacks. While law enforcement agencies are aware of how enforcement and denial actions change behaviors, there will always be a trade-off between keeping extremists where they can be monitored online and removing them to reduce potential harm. Some of the ongoing adaptations of violent extremists are illustrated in this report, using case studies and examples from a variety of different platforms. At the strategic level, the authors dissect the ways in which violent extremist networks engage across mainstream and alternative technology platforms according to the opportunities each platform provides. Developing a greater and more detailed understanding of the VE online landscape is imperative given the extraordinary proliferation of VE activity online.

key results

  • Technological advancement, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the growth of extremist activity online greatly change the dynamics of the extremist landscape and the ways in which extremism is confronted and countered. In this context, there is a tipping point where this evolved version of VE could be countered.
  • VE exists as multiple complex ecosystems that transcend platforms. These ecosystems are widely accessible and home to content that continues to be curated in sophisticated ways, despite platform takedown measures.
  • A five-stage engagement model illustrates how violent extremists disseminate content and engage users in spaces where activists seek to reach, influence, cultivate, recruit, and deploy users. VE activists inhabit each of these five different stages simultaneously and maintain access to all other parts of their network, broader movement and organizational content, and diverse and broad audiences that depend on their specific role. Simultaneously, the model identifies the area in which a user can move from a passive consumer to an active participant. This area may not be accessible or vulnerable to the current variety of counters being deployed to combat VEs.
  • Through detailed thematic analysis of a large VE primary content dataset, at least four distinct but diverse behavior patterns can be distilled. These behaviors are practiced in different ways and at different levels and form aggregate responses or arise from external and internal pressures.


  • Undertake a more detailed examination of the behaviors of EV actors in the online world. The five-stage engagement model and behavior typology developed present a useful starting point from which to better explore VE behavior online.
  • Extend and test the typology of online behaviors to better understand how they change relative to observed ecosystem behavior.
  • Identify minimum viable capabilities to maintain vigilance around the evolution of EV online, including consideration of policy and technology infrastructure.
  • Review existing analytical approaches to better understand the operating cycles of violent extremists.
  • Map racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism ecosystems against a range of ideologically motivated violent extremism systems to determine their relative maturity and identify likely trajectories along which these latter systems might progress.
  • Foster collaboration among disparate groups across the homeland security landscape to enhance situational awareness. The interaction and overlaps between terrorism, extremism, foreign interference, and misinformation and disinformation must be investigated.

table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Identifying the problem

  • Chapter Three

    Violent extremism online: the evolution of a growing challenge

  • Chapter four

    Catalyzing the transition

  • chapter five

    The engagement model

  • Chapter Six

    Implications for policy and practice

  • Appendix

    Case Studies: Buffalo and Bratislava

This work was sponsored by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and carried out by RAND Australia.

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