Technological Skills of White Supremacists in an Online Forum: A Qualitative Examination

By Holt, Thomas J.; Bolden, Micah-Sage | International Journal of Cyber Criminology, July-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Technological Skills of White Supremacists in an Online Forum: A Qualitative Examination


Holt, Thomas J., Bolden, Micah-Sage, International Journal of Cyber Criminology


Introduction

The process of radicalization into extremist and terror movements has received increasing attention by scholars over the last decade, driven by the progressively prevalent threat of terroristic violence perpetrated around the world. Much of this research is driven by open source material and databased information on violent extremism, which has identified pathways that lead an extremist to violence (Bakker, 2006; Borum, 2011a, 2011b; Brenner, 2008; Freilich, Chermak, Belli, Gruenewald, & Parkin, 2013; Hafez, 2006; Hamm, 2007; Kunkle, 2012; McCauley & Moskalenco, 2011; Monohan, 2011; Sageman, 2004; Silber, 2012; Simi & Futrell, 2010; Stern, 2003).

There is, however, a limited body of research on the role of the Internet and online discourses in the radicalization process to violent ideologically-motivated activity (Brown & Douwe, 2009; Corb, 2011; Tsfati & Weimann, 2002; Weimann, 2011). There is evidence that a range of websites and on-line content are used by members of both the far right and Islamic extremist movements to promote their ideologies through mass-media (Denning, 2011; Freiburger & Crane, 2011; Holt, 2010, 2012; Jenkins, 2012; Kilger, 2011; Kunkle, 2012; Silber, 2012; Weimann, 2011). In fact, social media provides an avenue to spread news stories that may enrage individuals and lead to an acceptance of radical agendas (Corb, 2011; Kunkle, 2012). The Internet also provides an outlet to coordinate real world events across multiple areas and facilitate social relationships (Erez, Weimann, & Weisburd, 2011; Simi & Futrell, 2010). In fact, recent research suggests individuals who engaged in extremist behaviors either maintained or visited websites hosting radical group content (Chermak, Freilich, & Simone, 2010; Freilich et al., 2013; Silber, 2012).

In light of this evidence, it is important to assess how well extremist and terror groups understand and can utilize the technologies at their disposal (Gruen, 2005; McCauley, 2009; Weimann, 2011). While the Internet has a distinct role in recruitment and information sharing for terrorists, it is unclear how many members operate at a high level of technological sophistication and use the Internet for offensive attacks against on-line resources (Denning, 2011; Kilger, 2011). Though there is minimal evidence that members of the Far Right have engaged in cyber attacks against government or civilian targets, few researchers have considered why this might be the case. Cyberspace provides an unparalleled number of targets that could be affected, and done so with fewer resources than are needed to engage in physical attacks (Denning, 2011). Thus, there is a need to understand why and how members of the Far Right may discuss technology and their ability to leverage it for attacks against infrastructure or as a means to defensively anonymize their on-line identity and communications habits.

The present study seeks to address these questions through a qualitative analysis of posts made in a well-known online Far Right discussion forum in the United States. Though this movement in the US is highly segmented based on regional and religious affiliation, its members have engaged in a substantial number of violent acts in support of their beliefs (Chermak et al., 2010; Freilich et al., 2013). Furthermore, they are viewed as one of the top two threats to American public safety (Freilich et al., 2014). This movement provides an ideal group to explore the acquisition and dissemination of technology-related information on-line. In addition, this study considers the way that users express their online identity within the movement, and their use of both protective technologies and offensive cyber attack capabilities. The implications of this research for our broader understanding of the role of technology within extremist movements and future scholarship are considered in detail.

The Far Right Subculture and the Internet

In order to understand the technological capabilities of extremist movements, it is necessary to first consider the ways individuals become a part of radical social groups and the role of technology in this process. …

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