Piotr Szpunar: The Problem of Internet Radicalization?

IMG_0457Piotr Szpunar, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, shared his ongoing research on the topic of Internet radicalization during a GovLab Ideas Lunch in March . The issues addressed during the talk relate to the GovLab’s broader work on Internet governance and identifying strategies for a more effective Internet governance ecosystem.

Szpunar opened the discussion with an overview of the Tsarnev brothers, the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. During the coverage of this tragic event, the media scrambled to make sense of the motivations behind it. Different sources of blame were identified that ranged from cultural and religious heritage, to fractured home lives, to medical conditions. However, a clear, overarching theme across the speculation included the Internet’s role in promoting radicalization and violence for these two young men.

Szpunar’s research focuses on critical questions around the delicate balance between security and liberty. He argues that in order to gain a better understanding of this area, it is important to understand the following question: What does the data actually tell us about the role of the Internet in radicalization? And more specifically, what does the data tell us about the role of the Internet in “instilling a set of beliefs that motivate individuals to carry out violent acts” and “providing the technical know-how for making weapons.” According to Szpunar,  only when we answer these questions can lawmakers make informed decisions about where to draw the line between security and freedom of expression.

During his presentation, Szpunar walked the audience through several real world examples of “home grown terrorism” where radicalization was at the heart of the case. These included the Fort Dix Five (2007), the Newburgh Four (2009) and the Boston Marathon Bombing (2013). He also referred to quantitative data sets regarding recent incidents of jihadist and non-jihadist “homegrown incidents causing death.”


Homegrown Incidents Causing Death
Weapon(s) Used
Type N Deaths Wounded Firearms Explosives Other
Jihadist 7 26 213 6 1 1
Non-Jihadist 18 39 22 18 1 0

(Source: New America)

Through the course of his research, Szpunar looked at three dimensions of this issue, including:

  • the evidence on Internet radicalization
  • the relationship between theories of radicalization and the evidence available
  • government conduct as it relates to the data

After analyzing the data as it relates to these three points, Szpunar found several recurring themes surrounding his two original questions.Is there data that supports the idea that the Internet “instills a set of beliefs that motivate individuals to carry out violent acts”?

  • There are significant barriers to reliable data.
  • What little data does exist tells little of “ the how and why of Internet use in adopting extremist beliefs or motivating one to violence”.
  • Existing academic theories of radicalization are vague on details related to the role of Internet activity.

Is there data to support that the Internet “provides the technical know-how for making weapons?”

  • The majority of deaths in cases of homegrown terrorism are inflicted through the use of firearms.
  • Most cases involving explosives are facilitated by paid government  informants, a consistently unreliable source of information
  • In the majority of all other cases, internet materials provide little in the way of technical training.
  • Cases like the Boston Marathon bombing, where the Tsarnev brothers learned how build explosives using the Internet, are extremely rare

Overall, Szpunar’s research highlights a severe lack of data surrounding this topic. While there is some data to suggest that Internet made a difference for individuals who are already radicalized, there is little information about how the Internet led to the types of transformation we saw in cases like the Boston Marathon bombing. This obscurity makes it very difficult to evaluate government conduct as it comes to bear in these cases and related policy-making. To conclude, Szpunar cautioned against using fears of internet radicalization to support overreaching practices of internet monitoring, surveillance and/or censorship.  While undoubtedly a difficult topic, greater transparency and information sharing between government agencies and academics who study the topic is necessary to formulate , more effective, legitimate Internet governance.

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