Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Virtual Communities as Pathways to Extremism

Don Radlauer

Abstract: The Internet is playing an increasing role in terrorism – not only in obvious areas such as command and control, technical instruction, and the publishing of ideological tracts, but also as a social medium in which groups of people form “virtual communities”. In some cases, these communities can become progressively radicalized to the point where they eventually commit or support acts of violence. An understanding of “virtual communities” is necessary in order to create means of preventing them from functioning as incubators for terrorism.

Keywords: Virtual communities, online communities, Internet, terrorism, radicalism, extremism



One of the notable aspects of much recent terrorism is that the Internet has played a significant role in its preparation and execution: sometimes as a tool for command and control, sometimes as a source of information and technical instructions, sometimes as a medium for publishing ideological manifestos and warped, emotionally manipulative versions of the news of the day, and sometimes as a means for socialization among groups that later carried out or supported terror attacks.

All these uses of the Internet are obviously of concern to those responsible for combating terrorism; but the latter function – the use of the Internet as a social venue – is of special interest. Most, if not all, of the other roles the Internet plays in facilitating terrorism could be accomplished to similar effect without the use of modern communications technologies, albeit at a slower speed; but socialization through computer-mediated communication (“CMC”) appears to have some characteristics and potential effects quite different from those of more traditional means of social interaction.

Social groups interacting through various forms of CMC are generally known as “online communities” or “virtual communities”. In most cases, of course, such groups are harmless and even beneficial. However, in some cases virtual communities have been known to lead previously moderate participants towards radical political or religious beliefs, and to deepen the commitment and willingness of those already radicalized to carry out violent acts.

In order to explore the virtual-community phenomenon and its implications, it is important first to understand the general phenomenon of community. Equipped with some understanding of what communities are, why they form, and how they function, we can begin to investigate how virtual communities are similar to – and different from – conventional communities.

Communities and Why We Need Them

Human beings, in general, need to belong to some form of social group. This is empirically obvious, but has also been well documented in the professional literature; for example, Baumeister and Leary [1] state that “Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.” We are profoundly social animals; and the “lone wolf” among human beings is, in general, just as unhappy as the true lone wolf ejected from his pack.

It has also been observed – notably fifty years ago by Horton and Wohl [2] – that electronic media can provide a substitute for face-to-face group membership. This likely explains the incredible popularity of television shows like “Cheers” (among many others, including daytime dramas), which seem to offer membership in a “parasocial group” [2] as their primary attraction. The viewer of such shows feels him/herself a part of the social group portrayed by the show; s/he can become intensely involved with the characters and their tribulations, even though s/he is well aware of the fictionality of the characters and situations portrayed.

It is evident that for at least some of us, various forms of interpersonal interaction over the Internet can similarly act as an acceptable substitute for face-to-face socialization. Because these Internet-mediated forms of socialization are genuinely interactive (as opposed to the passive parasocial relationship between the viewer and the characters in Cheers, who in fact do not know your name and are not glad you came), they can constitute a genuine, albeit “low-bandwidth”, form of social interaction.

Social-group Size: Dunbar’s Number and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Human social groupings, like those of other animals, appear to be limited in their size. In an attempt to understand the limits of social-group size, British researcher Robin Dunbar correlated neocortex size with social group size in various primate genera, and by extrapolation came up with “Dunbar’s Number” as a practical limit to the size of human social groups. Above Dunbar’s Number (approximately 150), so much time is spent simply maintaining group cohesiveness that member satisfaction and group stability break down. In practice, and particularly for dispersed societies, the optimal number of members in a functioning community will likely be much smaller [3].

In his investigation of the application of Dunbar’s Number to computer-mediated social groupings, Christopher Allen has empirically graphed “group satisfaction” against group size for certain online gaming communities (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Allen’s graph of group satisfaction vs. group size


He found a peak in satisfaction at around seven members for “simple” teams (or cells), and another peak at around fifty members for groups with some hierarchy and specialization. In between is a “chasm”, where the group becomes too large to be optimal as a simple social arrangement, and yet isn’t large enough for effective hierarchy and specialization to develop [4].

Work by Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher [5] shows that in computerized simulations of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game [6] with no option for punishment of betrayal, mutual cooperation among imaginary game participants broke down at a size of 8 to 16 group members. This corresponds nicely to the falloff after the first peak of Allen’s empirical graph of group satisfaction [5]. When the option of punishing betrayers (at some cost to the punisher) was added to the simulation, intra-group cooperation was more robust – although it still broke down as groups became so large that enforcement became a significant burden for those who chose to do the punishing.

Simulated groups that punished both betrayers and non-betrayers who failed to punish betrayers maintained cooperation at much greater sizes. This shows that the addition of a functional hierarchy to the simulation allows larger groups to function effectively. Since Fehr and Fischbacher did not incorporate Dunbar-type limits into their simulation, their fully hierarchical model (the top line in the graph below) does not show a significant decline in mutual cooperation within large groups (see Figure 2).



Figure 2. Fehr and Fischbacher’s model of functional hierarchy in a Prisoner’s Dilemma simulation


What Makes a Community Work?

Having established that communities answer a deep need, and that communities of certain sizes are likely to be more stable and satisfying to their members than communities that are too large, too small, or both (in the case of Christopher Allen’s “chasm”), we naturally would like to understand more about how communities function. What differentiates a functioning community from a random group of people – the passengers on a bus, for example?

One crucial requirement of a community is almost paradoxically simple: to function as a community, a group of people must feel that they are a community. This sense of community has been further defined as consisting of the following elements [7]:


  • Feelings of membership: Feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community;

  • Feelings of influence: Feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community;

  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: Feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them; and

  • Shared emotional connection: Feelings of relationships, shared history, and a “spirit” of community.

    From the above, it is readily apparent why the relationship between viewers and television-show characters is considered “parasocial” rather than genuinely social. Audience members may feel they are members of the “community” portrayed by their favorite shows, but they have no influence on that “community”; they can “support” their favorite characters only theoretically, and can receive support only with the aid of a good imagination.

    In addition to these components of the sense of community, we can add that a functioning community needs something by which to differentiate itself from its surrounding environment. In order to feel fully like “one of us”, we need to feel that there is a genuine “us” – and that requires that there be something separating “us” from “them”. Traditionally, such differentiation could derive from familial/clan relationships or geographical location: either a fixed location, such as residence in the same village, or, in the case of nomadic groups, a defined range of migration.

    But when human agglomerations get large enough (and clan relationships break down sufficiently) so that no available “natural” grouping meets the Dunbar requirements for maximum effective group size, people need to find (or create) other criteria upon which to base a sense of community. Such criteria can take various forms; functional communities (virtual and otherwise) have formed around music and other hobbies, a shared disease, or participation in an online game. In the young, community formation often involves more or less “antisocial” attitudes and behaviors, from wearing “unacceptable” clothes to vandalism to out-and-out crime.


    Interactivity Promotes Sense of Community

    As has been shown, part of the sense of community is the feeling that one has an active influence on the community as a whole, and on one’s fellow members individually. This applies just as much to virtual communities as to conventional ones. In order to support the formation of a virtual community, an Internet site needs to have appropriate facilities for interaction among members. Such an interactive site has been termed a “virtual settlement” – implying that while an online community may not yet have been formed, an appropriate “place” has been created where such a community can form. It has been shown that highly interactive “virtual settlements” with public exchange of messages are stronger community-builders than less interactive sites [8].

    Accordingly, “broadcast” websites may be adequate as an informational and ideological resource for communities to use, but without interactive features they do not function as “virtual settlements” that can support the creation of virtual communities. Chat-rooms, forums, and email lists can function well as “virtual settlements”. Blogs, when they include commenting capability, seem to be an intermediate case in which some sense of community can exist, but a strong virtual community seldom if ever comes into existence.


    How are Virtual Communities Different from Conventional Social Groups?

    The Internet is different from previous social venues in various ways. One particularly important difference is that the Internet can function as both a social venue and as an information source, with one-click linkage between the two. Thus, a virtual community that influences its members to obtain their news and other “facts” preferentially from certain websites can serve as a self-contained, isolated milieu for both socialization and information-gathering. Further, virtual communities are freed from the constraints of geography and of conformity; one’s virtual friends can live essentially anywhere in the world, and anyone in need of companionship can find like-minded people without having to conform to the mainstream of one’s surrounding non-virtual community. These capabilities, among others, are important in understanding how Internet-based virtual communities can sometimes be a dangerous phenomenon.


    Eliminating Old Isolations and Creating New Ones

    In the past, immigrants were effectively isolated from their former countries, and thus faced a high degree of pressure to adopt the language, values, habits, and assumptions of their new home. Information connected to “the old country” was static and essentially “dead”, while information connected to the mainstream of the immigrants’ new host country was fresh and dynamic. The dominant host-country culture had tremendous cachet; the children of immigrants were eager to cast off the habits and accent of their parents and grandparents, and become as much like their hosts as they could.

    The Internet, along with satellite TV, has eliminated much of this isolation, and thus considerably reduced the informational and social pressures leading to assimilation. Immigrants can easily remain in touch with the living, vibrant culture and ideology of their country of origin. The acceptance and promotion of multiculturalism has reduced pressures for assimilation as well; host societies no longer exert the same degree of pressure on immigrant communities to lose their particularist identity. Even the children and grandchildren of immigrants, raised with no strong connection to “the old country”, can create such a connection afresh; and so the Internet gives disaffected immigrant-community youth the opportunity of “finding themselves” as “old-country” nationalists.

    Because the Internet provides instant, low-cost communications across national boundaries and great distances, Internet-based virtual communities allow small, geographically diffuse groups to maintain and promote their ideological/informational framework undeterred and undetected by outsiders. Like so many features of advanced technology, this can have both positive and negative effects: the same capabilities that allow a madrigal singer in Manila to exchange ideas on performance practice with other madrigal singers in Great Britain also allow extremists of any type to give one another support and encouragement.

    This ability to form geographically dispersed virtual communities can lead to the fragmentation of “real” communities: I can feel and believe very different things than my neighbors believe and feel, and yet not feel isolated or discouraged because I have ideological neighbors as close as my computer. The urge to conform is thus considerably weakened. Further, if the virtual community of which I am a member has a major internal dispute, its members are not forced to compromise and continue to live together; it is trivially easy to split off and form a new virtual community. Virtual communities can keep subdividing as long as there are enough new members joining up to keep the resulting communities viable. This “fractal” aspect of virtual communities allows ideological/informational fragmentation to continue almost without limit, profoundly weakening the influence of the mainstream over their members. And since the potential “recruitment space” for a virtual community can be very large, the group does not have to alter or “tone down” its values and characteristics in order to attract members from the limited pool of potential recruits in any particular locale. The Internet offers privacy, anonymity, a huge recruiting pool, and an unlimited supply of “street corners” on which to meet. All of this reduces the influence of mainstream ideas, cultures, and constraints.

    Internet-mediated Alienation: Lurkers and Sleepers

    As members of a virtual community, terrorists, potential terrorists, and terrorist sympathizers no longer need a local constituency to support them, approve of them, or to inspire them. The global community of true believers (in whatever they believe) is now their community, and their new group identity justifies anything they may do against their host community. By weakening bonds with the local community, membership in a virtual community may permit a loss of normal empathy and inhibitions against killing or injuring one’s neighbors, or even against harming one’s own family.

    Virtual communities often allow the phenomenon of unobtrusive “lurking” – meaning that people can gravitate towards an online community, read what others write, and yet not have to contribute to the discussion or even reveal their presence. (This capability, of course, can also be useful for counter-terrorists!) Analogous behavior is much more difficult in conventional social situations, as “real lurkers” are obvious and annoying. The phenomenon of “lurking” allows a sort of multi-level recruitment strategy for online communities that would be completely impractical for “real” social groupings.

    Valdis Krebs [9], a social network analyst, created the following diagram (see Figure 3) of a typical high-tech interest-based virtual community (which in turn may be made up of several smaller virtual communities for socialization purposes.):


    Figure 3. Krebs’ depiction of a high-tech interest-based virtual community


    The diagram depicts four types of “nodes”, each one representing an individual connected in some way to the community:

    • Yellow nodes: leadership. These people are the core leaders of the organization. “They have denser connections to other leaders” and other main network nodes. They keep everything together as the group’s connectors.

    • Red nodes: active members. Active members are tightly connected to the leadership nodes (black). They, in combination with the leaders, are what people refer to as “the group”.

    • Blue nodes: people actively seeking membership. These people aren’t formally connected to the core group. They are actively working on ways (relationships, credibility, etc.) to connect to “the group”. As part of their effort to join the larger group, they have begun to create networks of their own, typically with around 5-15 members.

    • Green nodes: lurkers and potential members. People in this category are not active members of the group, and are only sparsely connected to other lurkers. They may or may not undertake actions that are in line with group goals [9].

      The pool of people actively seeking membership and lurking provides substantial potential for recruiting new members and spreading ideological messages.

      People participating in Internet-based virtual communities perforce develop some ability to lead a double life: their relations with their “virtual comrades” are largely compartmentalized from their “normal” contacts with those around them, particularly if their online friends would not meet with the approval of parents and other local authority figures. This compartmentalization could conceivably help them to live the double life required of a “sleeper” – an apparently harmless, quiet person who at any time is capable of supporting or carrying out a terror attack. At best, “living online” in political virtual communities enhances members’ alienation and isolation from their host communities.

      Internet-based virtual communities have a degree of freedom from local observation that is lacking in ordinary “street-corner” gatherings – who knows what Johnny is reading and writing over the Internet? Virtual communities facilitate the phenomenon of the “good boy” who turns out to be a deadly terrorist: until he carries out the attack, his parents, friends, and neighbors think of him as a nice quiet guy who sits in front of his computer a lot.

      Because politically-oriented virtual communities are based on ideas and ideologies rather than on geography or family relationships, they are likely to gravitate towards escalating extremism. In general, successful social entities are those that act to strengthen and perpetuate themselves. In political virtual communities, the best “success strategy” consists of deepening members’ commitment and extremism, since extremism encourages intra-group solidarity and renders group members increasingly impervious to contrary sources of information. Since the Internet is both an information source and a social medium, there is a synergy between commitment to the group and informational isolation. Loyal group members thus become true believers in extremist ideology, with an understanding of current events based on wildly ideological and inaccurate sources. The combination, obviously, can be deadly.



      Human beings need to feel that they are members of a community; and yet, for many reasons, modern life often fails to provide opportunities to belong to the kind of community we seem to be “programmed” to need. Given this lack of community in “real life”, many people have turned to the Internet, where they have found or created “virtual communities” based around mutually shared interests, beliefs, and ideologies.

      Most virtual communities are quite harmless. However, when virtual communities form around extreme political and/or religious beliefs, they can lead to real and severe dangers. Extremist virtual communities are likely to become progressively more extreme; and because they effectively filter the information reaching their hard-core members, they can promote social, ideological, and informational fragmentation and isolation from mainstream society. By providing a sense of “otherness” from ordinary society, extremist virtual communities can also deepen their members’ alienation from their surroundings, reducing their normal inhibitions against violence while increasing their ability to perform as “sleepers”.

      It is imperative that counter-terrorists create some strategy for countering these trends. One approach might be to create and promote alternative “real” and “virtual” social opportunities that do not center around dangerous ideologies. Certainly it would be better to prevent people from slipping into political radicalization in the first place, rather than try to stop them once they have decided to carry out a terror attack.



      [1] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995): “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation”. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. Accessed at .

      [2] Horton, Donald and R. Richard Wohl (1956): “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance”, Psychiatry 19: 215-29. .

      [3] Dunbar, R. I. M. (1993): “Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16 (4): 681-735. .

      [4] Allen, Christopher (2004): “The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes”, Life With Alacrity blog,

      [5] Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher: “The Nature of Human Altruism”, Nature, vol. 425, October 2003. .

      [6] Kuhn, Steven: “Prisoner's Dilemma”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), .

      [7] McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986): “Sense of community: A definition and theory”. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(6-23), cited at . See also Blanchard, Anita L. and Markus, M. Lynne: “The Experienced ‘Sense’ of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes”, The Data Base for Advances in Information Systems, Winter 2004, Volume 35, Number 1. or

      [8] Blanchard, Anita: “Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community in the Julie/Julia Project”, Into the Blogsphere, University of Minnesota, .

      [9] Robb, John: “Emergent Communities Dedicated to War (London, Iraq, and Al Qaeda)”, Global Guerrillas blog, 21 July 2005. . See also Krebs, Valdis E.: “Uncloaking Terrorist Networks”, First Monday, Volume 7, Number 4 (April 2002), .