LONDON – When the English Defense League sprang to life two years ago, it had fewer than 50 members – a rough-and-tumble bunch of mostly white guys shouting from a street corner about what they viewed as uncontrolled Muslim immigration.
Now, the far-right group mentioned by confessed Norway gunman Anders Behring Breivik as an inspiration says its ranks have swollen to more than 10,000 people, a spectacular rise its leaders attribute to the immense global power of Facebook and other social networking sites.
“I knew that social networking sites were the way to go,” EDL leader Stephen Lennon told the Associated Press. “But to say that we inspired this lunatic to do what he did is wrong. We’ve never once told our supporters it’s alright to go out and be violent.”
A Facebook page under Breivik’s name was taken down after the attacks last week. A Twitter account under his name had only one Tweet, on July 17, loosely citing English philosopher John Stuart Mill: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”
Norwegian investigators have pored through data on Breivik’s computer and say they now believe he was acting alone. They have also said they haven’t found any links of concern between Breivik and far-right British groups such as the EDL.
In addition to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the Internet hosts thousands of forums for far-left, far-right and other extremist groups. In Germany alone, far-right groups ran some 1,000 websites and 38 online radio stations as of late last year with many aimed at recruiting followers. Social networking sites, complete with politically charged music, are particularly drawing younger audiences who increasingly get their information outside of traditional media.
Extremists “still favor online chat platforms – often with several hundred participants – but they are increasingly turning to social media,” said Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which called the danger of recruitment “considerable.”
Intelligence and law enforcement officials have mixed feelings about the sites. On one hand, they recognize the potential for recruiting groups or individuals into violent movements. On the other, the sites allow officials to track and catch perpetrators. Germany’s interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, told local media this week that he’s more worried about extremists who go underground and “radicalize in secret.”
Most agree that the most violent criminals often give little to no clear warning of the deadly acts they are about to commit, and that sometimes it’s difficult to know when a person is simply boasting or whether their online activity suggests they could become killers.
What’s undeniable is the social media’s power to bring together people with like-minded views.
“Fifty years ago, if you believed that the Earth was populated by spies from Jupiter, it would have taken you quite some time to find someone else who shared the same belief,” said Bob Ayers, a London-based former U.S. intelligence official. “That’s not the case today. Social networking sites have changed the mathematics of things, and with that change comes both pros and cons.”
Several of the email addresses to which Breivik sent his 1,516-page manifesto hours before the Oslo bombing matched Facebook profiles of people flaunting neo-Nazi or ultranationalist symbols.
Those profiles, in turn, were set up to connect with like-minded people. One apparently Italian addressee – whose profile picture shows a swastika, the SS symbol and a skull – linked to Facebook groups representing “Fascist Music,” the biography of former Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, as well as firearms.
His list of 462 “friends” showed several people with similar profiles, including some with the symbols or illustrations of the Knights Templar, a group that Breivik said he joined after meeting with a group of right-wing men in London.
Another addressee, showing off his pumped up torso and shaved head, lists the anti-immigration British National Party as his political views.
The British National Party, which won its first seat in European parliamentary elections last year, recently encouraged its members to use social media outlets.
“Social networking is an important way of keeping in touch with the British National Party, and taking small, easy actions to promote our fight for our identity and culture,” the BNP said on its site. “It’s just one way you can make a difference and show you care about the cause we all believe in.”
The group recommended its supporters post pro-nationalist quotes on Facebook to inspire friends to take action.
Some analysts say that although it’s clear social media play an important role in strengthening the far-right’s sense of identity and solidarity, it’s too early to say how much Facebook and Twitter have helped contribute to extremist violence.
“The fact that we have more blogs, more online forums, doesn’t mean we have a greater risk of terrorism,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics lecturer who recently published a book on the far right in Britain. “Even if they hold radical, extreme views, it doesn’t mean they’re pro-violence.”
Facebook says it relies on its community to police the site and usually only steps in when individuals or groups are inciting violence or hate. It would not comment on whether it was cooperating with law enforcement agencies looking into the Norway massacre.
Daniel Hodges, a spokesman for Searchlight, a UK magazine that campaigns against far-right extremism, said the Internet allows “all sorts of appalling viewpoints” to be read by anyone. “How many people over the world today have now read Breivik’s manifesto?” he said.
Rather than automatically take down pages that are in the gray area, some civil libertarians think it’s better for social media sites to “err on the side of caution” and let the community handle it.
“Facebook and social media in general tend to be very self-correcting,” said Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group in San Francisco.
“A lot of times you see people who oppose the hate speech taking over the (hate) groups. That tends to be more effective than taking the page down.”