Online radicalisation: an explanatory fiction?

Earlier this year Nick Reilly, a young Muslim convert suffering Asperger’s syndrome and with a mental age of ten, tried to explode a nail bomb in a restaurant in Exeter. He did explode the bomb but in the restaurant toilet by mistake, harming only himself. Press coverage immediately described Reilly as a person radicalised ‘over the internet’, or ‘brainwashed online’ as The Times helpfully put it. What could this mean? For some years now security policymakers have been under pressure to find out how the online radicalisation process works, but little progress has been made. Yes, we know how Al-Qaeda and other groups use the internet for organisation and propaganda functions, but whether and how the internet is used for ‘brainwashing’ is a mystery. But this may because it is fundamentally unknowable. Why? First, it presumes that we can isolate the effects of online activity from the broad set of relationships any person encounters every day. But while certain combinations of offline meetings and online engagement may lead a person to become an advocate or practitioner of violence, it is unlikely to be the product of online activity alone. Second, and more importantly, it makes less and less sense to speak of ‘online’ or ‘offline’ behaviour in the first place. ‘Radicalising material’ may be sent by Bluetooth, consumed on a cellphone, and responded to by text messaging. Researchers found schoolchildren swapping images of Ken Bigley’s beheading in 2004 doing this on their phones. Where they being radicalised? No, and none of it was online anyway. Were security practitioners to try to trace ‘online radicalisation’ they would not be able to construct a complete explanation.

There appears a generation for whom an imaginary figure exists, the ‘sad loner’ sitting in his bedroom (never her bedroom) in the dark being radicalised, brainwashed, or programmed. This may be what the psychologist Burhuss Skinner called an explanatory fiction: something we need to visualise in order to make sense of a larger process. In psychology, that fiction was ‘the mind’, which doesn’t technically exist in any observable sense. So this is not like the Higgs Boson particle which is predicted in particle physics and which Cern’s large hadron collider may allow scientists to observe. It is a heuristic, a conceptual entity only. There are ‘vulnerable’ people like Nick Reilly at the start. And there are acts of violence at the end. Somewhere in between was presumed to be a process of online radicalisation. It is becoming increasingly clear this makes little sense.