The exponential growth in the use of the Internet and social media by terrorist actors and violent extremists has generated research interest into terrorism and the Internet. Much of this research is focused on the kinds of messages being spread via the various media platforms that host violent extremist content. This research has yielded significant insights into how organizations such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State craft their messages, the mediums they use to disseminate their messages, and the ways in which they reach their audiences. Yet we are still no closer to understanding why certain messaging appeals to certain people in certain ways and not to others. Within the literature on terrorism and the Internet, the audience—those individuals who receive messages, make meaning from them and then decide whether to act on them—is conspicuously missing. As a result, research into terrorism and the Internet can only hypothesize about the nature and extent of influence that terrorist messages wield. It is often based on an assumption that the violent extremist narrative works like a magic bullet to radicalize audiences already vulnerable and predisposed to becoming violent. Utilizing media theory approaches to studying the audience as an active agent in meaning-making, this article proposes a research framework for developing the current focus on terrorism and the Internet.
In his critique on the stagnation in terrorism research, Marc Sageman laments the lack of progress toward understanding terrorism or political violence. Sageman notes the focus in both government and some academic circles on the role and influence of the Internet in political violence and draws attention to the dearth in both quantity and quality of research into the Internet and its relationship to political violence. In response to Sageman, Jessica Stern defends the turn in terrorism research toward narratives and Internet propaganda, arguing that “There are so many examples of extremists who have been influenced by “preachers of hate” and Internet propaganda that is hard to understand why Dr. Sageman belittles their importance.” Stern highlights key examples of jihadists for whom violent extremist online narratives played at least some role in their trajectory toward violence. Stern's response, although astute, does not fully respond to Sageman's point that, contrary to the silver bullet approach that is driven by “an implicit assumption that mere exposure to material on jihadi websites radicalizes naive Muslims and turns them violent,” “online jihadists” are active participants who each have their own reasons for seeking out and engaging with violent extremist online narratives. While both Sageman and Stern acknowledge that the Internet plays a role in the radicalization process, the exchange highlights a contemporary problematic in the field of terrorism studies: namely, the lack of empirical evidence to support assumptions of causality between online narratives and radicalization to violent extremism.