The effects of social media on domestic terrorism - Our experts have the answers

The effects of social media on domestic terrorism - Our experts have the answers

January 20, 20233 min read

There is no question social media has an impact on today’s society. Worldwide there isn’t much research available with empirical evidence showing its effect.

Lance Hunter, PhD, associate professor in Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and the Masters of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies program at Augusta University recently was part of two studies that show evidence linking social media to political violence including domestic terrorism and civil conflict.

The studies included over 150 countries and covered the time frame 2000 to 2019.

“One of the things we found very interesting is the amount of time that people spend on social media on average within each country per year. It really does matter in affecting the amount of domestic terrorism within countries,” said Hunter.

While many are focused on what happens domestically, Hunter found that some countries have more social media usage as compared to the United States and have varying amounts of political violence within their countries.

“When social media is dangerous is when it increases polarization. When it’s used to spread disinformation that disinformation can have a polarizing effect on citizens around the world, and that polarization is associated with political violence.”

Even socio-economic factors can play a role in social media and its effect on people in a country.

“Looking at our research and data and looking across democracies and non-democracies, different income levels of countries most developed, less developed, we see there is a noticeable effect that social media can really influence political violence, especially if it’s used for disinformation purposes.”

He went on to add since their data ended in 2019, and there have been instances of violence in the U.S. since then, researchers may continue to speculate on the relationship between social media posts and the acts of domestic terrorism.

Here's an excerpt from the journal's abstract in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression:

Much qualitative research has drawn an association between social media and domestic terrorism, with the studies reaching different conclusions. However, few empirical studies have evaluated whether the surge in social media participation affects domestic terrorist events. Controlling for common explanations in the literature, we conduct a cross-national, time-series analysis of up to 151 countries from 2000 to 2019 to assess the impact of social media penetration on domestic terrorism. We find that greater social media penetration increases the likelihood of domestic terrorism in countries as it supports extremists’ ability to recruit, mobilize, and train terrorists.

Using mediation analysis, we also find that greater social media penetration amplifies online and political polarization, increasing the likelihood of domestic terrorism events. Our work indicates the possible mechanisms linking social media and domestic terrorism and the need to develop and apply appropriate counterterrorism strategies to mitigate terrorist operations.

“There is a noticeable effect that social media can really influence political violence, especially if it’s used for disinformation purposes. I think maybe it’s just something to think about going forward for governments and citizens regarding how we should approach social media because I think with any type of technology, it can be used for good or for evil.”

While there are countries that try to limit certain social media platforms depending on what information is being transmitted, there will likely be ways around any restrictions put in place.

“When you’re thinking overall regarding social media, and we’re thinking about communication over social media, is that individuals at times do have certain technologies that they can circumvent those controls at times. So it can be a cat and mouse game between the government and the citizens.”

Dr. Lance Hunter is an assistant professor of political science with a background in international relations. His research focuses on how terrorist attacks influence politics in democratic countries and how political decisions within countries affect conflicts worldwide.

Hunter is available to speak with media about this important topic - simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.

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  • Lance Hunter, PhD
    Lance Hunter, PhD Professor of Political Science

    Dr. Lance Hunter studies the connection between terrorism and political stability in democracies.

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