How did we get here?

How and why radicalization happens

Image Caption: A man stands in the capital holding a confederate flag. Original Image by REUTERS/Mike Theiler, Edited by Mei Ke.

Radicalization is a difficult topic to talk about, even in politically neutral environments. However, the attack on the capital on Jan 6th, and potential future assaults, make it necessary to address radicalization in a way that is easy for a lay person to understand. Although I myself am not an expert on radicalization, I will be drawing on my graduate level courses and sources from some of the leading experts in the field to give you as a reader a basic idea of why radicalization happens, why it is hard to stop, and what we can do about it. My primary source will be Barbara Walter, a former professor of mine at UC San Diego, whose work has been influential in the study of terrorism, civil war, and radicalization. I will also be adding further citations at the end of this piece; but, as I mention later on in this article, please do not take my single account as the be all end all of your information on this subject.

What is radicalization?

Because the term ‘radicalization’ started gaining popularity after the 9/11 attacks, the word is still commonly tied to the idea of religious extremism in the Middle East. Even though government institutions acknowledge that that white nationalist groups are more of a threat than ‘Islamic terrorism’ to the United States, a majority of the research done on extremism has focused on groups like ISIS and the Islamic State because it is much easier to get funding for the “War on Terror” than a controversial domestic problem. Despite this, the principles we will be discussing today are the same for all measures of radical behavior and ideology, regardless of race or religion.

Due to the divisive nature of the term’s background, there is not one definition that we can use to sum up all types of radicalization. What one person considers extreme does not necessarily translate to another person’s definition. So, for our purposes, we will define ‘radicalization’ as:

  1. A gradual process of socialization
  2. Said socialization is connected to an extremist belief system
  3. That belief system encourages or supports violence as a means for radical change in a society
  4. Radical ideology does not necessarily result in radical behavior (ie. direct violence or terrorism)
The Capital is lit up by the explosion of a flash grenade, showing flags and rioters on the steps.
The Capital is lit up by the explosion of a flash grenade, showing flags and rioters on the steps.
Image Caption: The Capital is lit up by the explosion of a flash grenade, showing flags and rioters on the steps. Photo by REUTERS/Leah Millis.

How does someone become radicalized?

Although it seems like a simple explanation, the book The Three Pillars of Radicalization reveals that radicalization happens when individuals who have grievances build up social groups based around an ideological identity that reenforces interpersonal ties and a type of ‘found family.’ In short: people with needs build up networks and create narratives to explain their interpersonal connections. At their core, these individuals feel that the world is profoundly unfair, whether that be because of a perceived discrimination or a belief that a moral principle is being violated. It is important to note that it does not matter if these individuals are actually under duress due their perceived minority status or moral belief. Their perception feels real enough to motivate them to support radical beliefs and participate in radical behaviors. For example, what white supremacists call a ‘white genocide’ or a ‘race war’ in reality is the statistical fact that white Americans have a higher death to birth ratio than other racial groups. The way perception is manipulated can change the narrative that groups use to prop up their arguments.

Individuals react to radicalization in different ways, but for simplicity there are four ‘stages’ a person goes through when becoming radicalized. These stages are dynamic and nonlinear, and it is possible for individuals to progress, regress, or go through multiple at the same time.

STEP 1: An individual is or becomes susceptible to radicalization due to ideology, perceived discrimination, anger, tradition, or even boredom

STEP 2: That person orients toward a particular type of radicalization that fits their ideology or goals

STEP 3: Said individual becomes a member and gets involved in a group(s) willing or supportive of violent action to achieve their goals

STEP 4: The person participates in extremist actions to achieve the group’s goals, up to and including behavior that is violent and illegal

Why is radicalization hard to overcome?

As can be easily seen, the definition of radicalization is incredibly broad. In fact, most politically active individuals would most likely place themselves somewhere on the scale of group engagement or anger about a social injustice. However, the important distinction in radicalization is the support and belief that violence is a political means to change behavior of others. In order for an individual to come to this point they will have completely isolated themselves from other sources of news or ideas, making them easily susceptible to pressure from their ‘chosen family’ to potentially commit violent and illegal acts. No one religion, race, or group is predisposed to violence, but the construction of a network echo chamber can introduce belief systems or ideologies that can lead to extremism.

Radicalization is difficult to overcome because it is based in a common human problem: peer pressure. Human beings are very susceptible to authority and group dynamics, even to the point of participating in violent actions they would not partake in under normal circumstances. These psychological pressures are compounded when an individual is cut off from the outside world and feels obligated to obey orders or follow an ideology because of their connections to the group. For lack of a better analogy, once someone is ‘plugged in to the mainframe’ it is hard to get them out of the system.

Police look through the broken glass of a window pane in the Capital building.
Police look through the broken glass of a window pane in the Capital building.
Image Caption: Police look through the broken glass of a window pane in the Capital building. Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Gaber.

How can I avoid radicalization?

Despite the irony that I am writing this article and doing all my research via the internet, one of the biggest accelerants and potential causes of polarization in the past decade has been the growth of social media. Internet algorithms are built to keep individuals in their customized bubble of content, which inadvertently creates massive echo chambers and encourages extreme content that generates more emotional reactions and likes. The result is a giant fake new machine that profits on creating and disseminating outrage and controversy.

Until social media companies do more to address polarization and fake news on their platform, the best way for an individual to combat this powerful combination is to actively engage in content that is diverse in both opinions and in audience. For example, I personally find American news to be too polarized and American-centric for my everyday consumption. Instead, a majority of the news I consume is from international sources like the BBC, political commentators like Steven Colbert and Seth Myers, or even content experts on fields I am not educated in. Diversify your mainstream consumption with mixes of both general content expertise as well as everyday updates so you are aware of the political and social issues around you.

It is also important to seek out opinions that actively disagree with your belief system. One of the first ways to do this is to follow and engage with as many diverse individuals as you can, whether in real live or online. Set up a zoom call with someone in an entirely different career field from you. Follow artists and creators that make content for a minority group you do not identify with. Join an anti-racist book club. Do not feel obligated to make angry comments on your uncle’s racist posts but do take the time to listen to different opinions and judge them against your own ideas and belief systems. By setting yourself up to think critically about the media you consume and the people you support, you will better understand your own belief system and be prepared to stand up for those ideas against peer pressure from your friends, family, or colleagues. Like your parents may have told you growing up, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

How can I help de-radicalize others?

Unfortunately, there is a public perception that once someone has radicalized they can never come back from the darkness of those beliefs. However, by looking at radicalization as a socialization and needs based issue rather than a moral or psychological one, it is clear that even the most radical of extremists can redefine their world view. There are several real world examples of this happening, including a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church disavowing her family, one of the founders of the skinhead movement leaving the group altogether, and even the godson of David Duke becoming an advocate against white supremacy.

Both research and these testimonies explain that there are multiple factors that affect extremist group membership: push, pull, and barriers. Push factors can be disillusionment with ideology, a loss of status within the group, or even infighting. Pull factors include making positive and healthy relationships outside the group or finding opportunities for a ‘normal’ life outside of violent activism, such as a new job. Barrier factors that prevent members from leaving include the breaking of ties with close family and friends, potential retribution by members of the group, and stigmatization or legal repercussions for their actions while a part of the group. Both push and pull factors have to be strong enough to overcome the barrier factors for an individual to feel they have the ability to leave the group.

Even though it seems simple, most individuals who leave radical groups credit simple kindness and understanding from others as their primary reason to question their belief system. Sometimes, even a single friend outside of their organization can change the perspective of a person who has an extremist belief system. In fact, Daryl Davis, a jazz musician, is a personal testament to this method. He traveled the United States interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan, finding that many individuals and leaders changed their perspectives after having positive interactions with him as a black man. Today, Davis owns the hoods of many former members of the KKK, who have renounced the organization after becoming friends with musician.

The best way for an individual to help de-radicalize others is to be patient, loving, and understanding. De-radicalization is a long and complicated process, and often people trying to de-radicalize have ‘relapses’ as they try to break from their previous social ties and belief systems. Shaming former extremists only further emphasizes the social isolation that drove them to extreme views in the first place. Instead, an approach that questions the assumptions behind the belief system can help extremists deconstruct their own bias and grow in understanding for others outside of their group. For example, if a friend or family member expresses a racist view, one method is to ask them why they believe that view is true. This gives an opportunity to discuss why assumptions can be harmful, and even violent, towards others.

Individuals who have radicalized have to understand why their actions were damaging to their communities and society, but it is vital that they are also aided in reintegration to ‘normalcy’ so that they can form social bonds that prevent further radicalization. Social ties to others help reenforce that violence is not an acceptable way to achieve a goal, preventing former extremists from participating in further radical action. In order to combat radical groups that prey on vulnerability and insecurity, it is vital to ensure those susceptible to extremism have strong social and emotional relationships with positive and productive members of their community.

A woman holds a sign that states “Trump is the Party” in front of the Washington Monument.
A woman holds a sign that states “Trump is the Party” in front of the Washington Monument.
Image Caption: A woman holds a sign that states “Trump is the Party” in front of the Washington Monument. Photo by AP Photo/John Minchillo.

What can we do as a nation to combat radicalization?

As was mentioned earlier in this article, one of the three pillars of radicalization is needs, or grievances. These needs can be as simple as an individual struggling to find a job to someone dealing with mental health problems and suicidal ideation. What is important about the need is that it is a problem that the individual perceives is unaddressed or under-appreciated in society. For example, many alt-right groups famously quote that men are more likely to die of suicide than women, which they believe shows men are more oppressed than women. What that statistic does not consider is that men are also less likely to seek out medical help for mental health problems due to social stigma and toxic masculinity. Radical groups are able to take real needs of communities and twist the narrative to create a tangible enemy on which to place the blame. However, one of the easiest ways to address this problem is to prevent those needs from happening in the first place. Simple programs to support mental health, address poverty, help the homeless, and ensure livable minimum wages can go a long way in combatting the ‘blame’ rhetoric these groups rely on. Breaking the chain of needs prevents the networks and narratives from forming.

Another part of this conversation has to be about the failing of democratic institutions in America. Many political scientists have been warning that America has been backsliding into anocracy for years, but not many everyday citizens know that America has been considered a “flawed democracy” since 2016. This type of ‘in-between’ democratic state is a major risk factor for potential civil war, so it is vital that America take steps to secure the future of its institutions through free and fair elections, reducing the influence of money in politics, and controlling the power of the executive branch. A strong democracy is less likely to have conditions in which radicalism flourishes. Citizens who feel secure that their government listens to them will not feel the need to use violence to achieve their goals.

Finally, it is vital that social media companies take a stand to stop the spread of misinformation and echo chambers that feed into the development of radical groups. I have written a whole dissertation on the problem of internet regulation if you wish to read more on that subject here, but the main takeaway is that that the internet has had a profound effect on the way we learn and grow as a society. As I suggested earlier in this piece, until companies better regulate the material that appears on their platforms, it is up to us as individuals to seek out diverse sources of information that challenge our belief systems and ideas.

Further Citations

Blight, David W. “Opinion | How Trumpism May Endure.” The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2021.,

“DHS Draft Document: White Supremacists Are Greatest Terror Threat.” POLITICO, Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

EIU Democracy Index 2019 — World Democracy Report. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Hafez, Mohammed, and Creighton Mullins. “The Radicalization Puzzle: A Theoretical Synthesis of Empirical Approaches to Homegrown Extremism.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 38, no. 11, Routledge, Nov. 2015, pp. 958–75. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/1057610X.2015.1051375.

“How to Break Out of Your Social Media Echo Chamber.” Wired., Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

“Most Will Administer Shocks to Others When Prodded by ‘Authority Figure.’” Https://Www.Apa.Org, Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Rasheed, Adil. “The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives, and Networks.” Strategic Analysis, vol. 44, no. 2, Routledge, Mar. 2020, pp. 158–60. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/09700161.2020.1726620.

Schumacher, Helene. Why More Men than Women Die by Suicide. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.

Shaffer, Ryan. “Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan (Eds.). Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement.” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 26, no. 5, Routledge, Oct. 2014, pp. 857–59. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/09546553.2014.968029.

“Suicide Statistics.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 15 Nov. 2019,

The US Will Become ‘Minority White’ in 2045, Census Projects. Accessed 19 Feb. 2020.

Unrest in America: An Interview with Barbara Walter — Political Violence at a Glance. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

van den Bos, Kees. “Unfairness and Radicalization.” Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 71, no. 1, Annual Reviews, Jan. 2020, pp. 563–88. (Atypon), doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010419–050953.

What Is Radicalization? — C-REX — Center for Research on Extremism. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Wollebæk, Dag, et al. “Anger, Fear, and Echo Chambers: The Emotional Basis for Online Behavior.” Social Media + Society, vol. 5, no. 2, SAGE Publications Ltd, Apr. 2019, p. 2056305119829859. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/2056305119829859.

They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Intelligence Specialist & Diversity Advocate |

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store