Understanding online extremism begins with 'whole society' approach, expert says

Vivek Venkatesh, UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism amd professor at Concordia University, spoke with Spark host Nora Young to break down what the real-world presence of such movements means — and to offer a perspective on how to prevent extremism. 

Movements like the Boogaloo Bois and QAnon are now surfacing at rallies and public events

A man holds up a Q sign while waiting in line with others to enter a Republican campaign rally. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Over the course of 2020, extremist movements — like the Boogaloo Bois and QAnon — that previously only existed as fringe online groups slowly began making their way into real-world forums.

Vivek Venkatesh, UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism and professor at Concordia University, spoke with Spark host Nora Young to break down what these movements mean — and to offer a perspective on how to address online extremism. 

Let's start by talking about the Boogaloo movement and QAnon as examples of online extremism that seem to be picking up steam quickly right now. Overall, how would you describe these movements? 

Vivek Venkatesh is the UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism, and a professor at Concordia University. (Submitted by Vivek Venkatesh)

Both the movements, Boogaloo and QAnon, seem to have rather disparate elements that help them come together, but also that help to attract a wide variety of believers. I think the Boogaloo movement itself is very much grounded in libertarian causes. It focuses very much on ensuring that people, especially in the United States, protect their fundamental freedoms and their constitutional rights. It's a very urgent way of looking at how society is decaying and how — if you're somebody who subscribes to this — how you can, in fact, take action. 

I think what's very interesting with movements like Boogaloo and QAnon... is that they seem to bring together people from both left-wing as well as right-wing ideology. I think in Canada, we're sort of used to a much more centrist approach. Most of our governments have a very centrist way of thinking. But with bipartisan politics, as we're seeing, you find that there seems to be a coming together of ideals which are anti-government and which don't necessarily fall under exclusively a left-wing or right-wing ideology. You can think of environmentalism, you can think of child abuse. You think of curbing of freedoms, freedom of expression, for example, as being phenomena that would be attractive to people for both the left-wing and right-wing ideologies. 

What pushes people to join extremist groups? Particularly in the case of something like QAnon where, on the surface of it, the conspiracy theory seems very hard to believe?

There are several underlying vulnerabilities — we like to call them "push factors" — that could explain an interest in extremist ideologies. And these have been demonstrated to be socioeconomic factors. People from a lower socioeconomic status, people who've had negative life experiences early on — experiences that could be perceived as grievances. 

We also found that when there wasn't a specific familial support network, when there wasn't necessarily an opportunity ... to be able to talk through some of their logic and some of their hateful perceptions of others, they tended to fall into the trap and into the rabbit hole of extremism. 

This is important to understand as well, because in addition to these push factors, there's also what is known in the literature as "pull factors." These are much more intrinsic. These are motivations that are related to a need for meaning, an identity. And psychological research has also demonstrated a concomitant effect in why people start believing in conspiracy theories. 

We have seen this crossover from online extremism to in-person presence at protests. References to QAnon have even made it into parts of the Republican Party. So more broadly, in terms of online extremism, is this some kind of watershed where a movement goes from being, you know, an online space to a physical presence? 

Not necessarily. When one thinks of online extremism, I think one needs to view this in sort of waves. In the sense that there are periods where a lot of recruitment can take place in online environments, and then there are particular points in time where physical action is manifested. 

One of the key characteristics of these movements seems to be this lack of a really clear kind of organizing structure — a lack of a clear hierarchy or a specific leader. Is that something that you find in online extremism more generally?

I think that it's a movement away from a singular leadership, as you call it, and latching onto larger phenomena. If you look at strategies to build pluralism, to build spaces for dialogue and uncomfortable dialogue, one of the things that researchers in the social sciences and education have found is that if you can remove the person who's talking about the phenomenon and talk about the phenomenon on its own, there is a better opportunity for you to not fall into ad hominem attacks.

And so what's interesting with the QAnon and Boogaloo movements as well, is that they focus on a specific issue at stake. It's environmentalism, it's constitutional rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We're moving away from creating a villain or even a straw man. 

So in that sense, it's interesting to see how they're creating these spaces where the phenomenon is what they want to discuss. I think the lack of a focused point of view, but also a lack of focused leadership, allows people with seemingly disparate points of view — political, religious, personal, ideological — to actually come together and say, "Hey, we might have something in common here."

Are there aspects of these types of movements that seem particularly internet-based to you? The Boogaloo Bois, in particular, seem to draw on memes a lot, for example. 

I remember in the early 2000s, when I started looking at some white supremacist message boards... the ways in which people were recruiting, but also the ways in which they were 'othering' those whom they disagreed with, those they felt were were subhuman, has not changed a lot since that particular time.

Text-based message boards and the undercurrents of messages of othering have perhaps taken on different forms. I think that the internet is very fertile and that it's easy to get access to this. The question is, how do you build a basis for some sort of literacy — information literacy, not just media literacy — where you are viewing these materials, and our first reaction [goes from] "This is just nonsense" to "Why are they saying this? And what's prompting them to bring these particular points forward?"

So there is a combination of both the face-to-face and communal, physical aspects and the meeting of minds in an online environment, which I think fuels the specific rage.

I know a lot of your research involves de-radicalization of people in extremist movements. So how do we approach de-escalating people in these groups or how do we move towards de-radicalization?

I think it's important to make the distinction between de-radicalization and disengagement. On the one hand, I think de-radicalization is when individuals are diverted from extremist ideology and they eventually end up rejecting that ideology and also adopt the values of the law-abiding majority.

Disengagement, on the other hand, is a process where the individuals leave the extremist group... [and] reintegrate into society. So disengagement and de-radicalization might happen concurrently, but they can happen separately as well, depending on the context. I think that it's important to think of disengagement and de-radicalization as a whole society approach.

With several former right-wing extremists who my team interviewed, there was a huge emotional toll as they were leaving these movements. They felt that it was important for them to recognize humanism in others. There was one specific person, a former neo-Nazi who was injured during a during a knife fight and woke up in the hospital to see a Jewish doctor with a kippah treating him. And that's when he said he had that moment of epiphany saying, "This is absolutely ludicrous, what I'm doing?"

... There is a combination of both the face-to-face and communal, physical aspects and the meeting of minds in an online environment, which I think fuels the specific rage.- Vivek Venkatesh

But for every person who goes through this process, there are others who experience those issues and get even more entrenched. When I mentioned earlier the whole society approach, I think... education or pedagogy on its own is not going to work. I think that we need to collaborate with mental health specialists. We need to learn from social service providers. We need to work with policymakers.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, listen in the player at the top of this page.