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Home > Reviews > Digital Extremisms

Digital Extremisms

Author Editors, Mark Littler, and Benjamin Lee

ISBN No 9783030301378

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 262

Publisher Palgrave

Publisher URL

Year of publication 01/04/2020


Our Review

The April 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine's book review page features Going Dark, one woman, Julia Ebner's online infiltrating of extremist groups.

Digital Extremisms covers that same ground; and its sub-title, Readings in Violence, Radicalisation and Extremism in the Online Space, tells us that this is a more academic work. The relative prices of the two books, quite apart from their authors' background, and aims, mean that the two will have quite different audiences. Ebner offers the immediacy of a first-person narrative, who has new insight into the extremists that she researches in her day job.

The several academic authors in Digital Extremisms are also specialists in the field, but criminologists, typically. The two editors, 30-something academics, Mark Littler from the University of Huddersfield, and Benjamin Lee of Lancaster University, at the very outset describe two phenomena over the last 20 years - 'the return of violent extremism and the rapid rise of the internet'. Perhaps those authors are overlooking the violence of the 1990s such as the IRA bombs in London and the Omagh car bomb. Nor did any of the movements that various chapter writers cover - such as anti-abortion, the far right, and animal rights protest - suddenly turn from non-violence in January 2000. But it's true enough as the editors say, though hardly original, that the internet as a neutral tool is on a par with the arrival of the printing press and the industrial revolution.

At least one of the chapters appears to under-cut any idea that the onset of the internet, plus any number of causes with a violent extreme, equals more or new violence. The UK at least, as is pointed out, has seen fewer attacks in the name of animal rights in the 2010s (due to careful policing and prosecutions? public revulsion after campaigners went too far?). Another intriguing point in the Irish chapter, by Lorraine Bowman-Grieve and Stephen Hermon, is that Irish republicans have made 'minimal use of the internet', compared to other countries' similar groups. Why - given the Irish diaspora, and that during the 1970s and 1980s the IRA looked abroad for funding and weaponry, that might suggest that the internet would be ideal.

Apart from anything else, this collection of essays is welcome for not ignoring jihadism and Islamism - two chapters cover it - but placing it in context, as the other eight chapters (not including the introduction and conclusion) feature Irish extremism (whether of the republican or loyalist sorts), the far right, animal rights and anti-abortion on Facebook.

That does raise the question, how much does the anti-abortion, Irish republican, and the jihadi-salafist extremist, for example, have in common? Let alone the jihadi who spouts hatred of non-believers, and the neo-Nazi who spouts hatred at the jihadi, and indeed any law-abiding Muslim who abhors jihadis? And if the extremists of any kind can be lumped together as internet users, how serious a threat are they to polite society - or are they only noisy and notorious? As Bowman-Grieve and Hermon's chapter shows, Northern Irish loyalists embraced social media as a platform over 2012 and 2013 for their 'flag' protests when Belfast City Hall proposed to fly the Union flag only on some days. Social media galvanised support, and expressed views - so what's new? What about 'digital extremism' is new, and what has stayed the same.

At the risk of singling out any author, the chapter by Jonathan Birdwell of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London looks at 'intervention programmes to counter radicalisation and polarisation'. Is countering terrorism possible and sensible beyond a 'security-led' approach, or can it be part of public health, to make extremists think and behave differently? Should a liberal society even do that, even if it works?

Like other similar collections by Palgrave and similar publishers, if you have a particular interest in one chapter you can avoid paying for the whole book and pay a fraction for a chapter or two, digitally.