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This study examined and compared the websites of ideological groups from a communications and media use perspective. Thirty-six websites with message boards categorized as either violent ideological, nonviolent ideological, or nonviolent nonideological were content coded for several distinguishing characteristics. The results indicated that group type was predicted by the type of information presented, the difficulty of becoming a member, and the amount of freedom members had on discussion boards. These findings suggest that characteristics of violent ideological group websites can be used to distinguish them from websites of both nonviolent ideological and nonideological groups. This study also provides a demonstration of a research methodology that can be used to naturally observe ideological groups via an online setting.
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Table 3 presents means and standard deviations for all variables by group. To answer the first research question, the similarities and differences between violent ideological, nonviolent ideological, and nonviolent nonideological groups was assessed. First, a MANOVA was conducted on the 28 variables to assess differences in the variables across groups. The MANOVA was found to be significant (F(2, 33) = 2.50, p = .02) based on the Wilk's criterion. Separate ANOVA's on individual variables were then performed, indicating that progroup information (F(2, 33) = 6.14, p < .01), neutral/antigroup information (F (2, 33) = 3.18, p = .05), intended use: informational (F (2, 33) = 3.38, p = .05), new media incorporated (F (2, 33) = 8.88, p < .01), traditional media incorporated (F(2, 33) = 4.65, p = .02), emotionally evocative graphics (F(2, 33) = 6.40, p < .01), tightness of control (F(2, 33) = 6.19, p < .01), sophistication (F(2, 33) = 3.39, p = .05), and visualization capability (F(2, 33) = 4.10, p = .03) were significant. However, it must be noted that the neutral/antigroup information metric had a moderate reliability and thus, caution must be used in the interpretation of this variable.
Post hoc tests were then conducted on the variables identified as significantly different across groups in the ANOVA's. A Tukey multiple comparison procedure (MCP) was used to determine which specific groups differed on each variable. For progroup information, significant differences were found, such that violent ideological groups (M = 4.96, SD = .14) were higher on this variable than nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 4.37, SD = .57), p < .01. The post hoc comparison for neutral/anti-group information revealed that nonviolent ideological groups (M = 2.17, SD = 1.01) were higher than violent ideological groups (M = 1.46, SD = .50), p = .04 on this variable. Intended use: informational also showed differences between these two groups, as nonviolent ideological groups (M = 4.31, SD = .46) were rated much higher than violent ideological groups (M = 3.61, SD = .80), p = .05. For the variable new media incorporated, post hoc comparisons showed that nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 2.25, SD = .53) were significantly lower than both violent ideological (M = 2.97, SD = .94), p = .03 and nonviolent ideological groups (M = 3.39, SD = .49), p < .01. The same pattern was found for traditional media incorporated. With this variable, again, nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 1.97, SD = .50) were rated lower than both violent ideological (M = 2.69, SD = .91), p = .03 and nonviolent ideological groups (M = 2.72, SD = .60), p = .04. The comparisons for emotionally evocative graphics indicated that differences exist between violent ideological groups and nonviolent non-ideological groups, such that violent ideological groups (M = 2.86, SD = 1.27) were rated higher than nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 1.47, SD = .55), p < .01 on this variable. Comparisons for tightness of control revealed a similar finding in that violent ideological groups (M = 3.03, SD = .94) were again higher than nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 1.80, SD = .56), p < .01. There were interesting findings for sophistication in that the nonviolent ideological groups (M = 3.50, SD = .76) were higher than violent ideological (M = 2.64, SD = .93), p = .05. Lastly, comparisons on visualization capability revealed that nonviolent ideological groups (M = 3.39, SD = .74) received higher ratings than nonviolent nonideological groups (M = 2.30, SD = 1.21), p = .03.
To answer the second research question, analyses were conducted to examine what website characteristics predict group membership. To do this, a discriminant function analysis (DFA) was conducted to determine which variables differentially predict membership in the three groups (violent ideological, nonviolent ideological, and nonviolent nonideological). Groups of variables were first entered simultaneously by category. For each category (Information Variety/Access, Media Types/Use, Member Characteristics: Quality/Frequency/Popularity, Member Control, and Website Functionality), a separate DFA was conducted using only the variables in that category. Based on the findings of the DFAs for each of the five variable categories, the predictors with the highest loadings in each category were identified, and all other variables were dropped for the final analysis. The high-loading variables were combined and entered into the final DFA. Table 4 presents the results of the final DFA.
Table 4. Classification Results
|Predictor||Standardized Canonical Coefficients||Structure Matrix|
|New Media Incorporated||.20||.42|
|Traditional Media Incorporated||.24||.39*|
|Emotionally Evocative Graphics||.67||.47*|
|Tightness of Control||.61||.47*|
In this analysis, the Wilk's lambda for function 1 was significant (λ = .284, p < .01), however it was not significant for function 2, therefore only function 1 results will be interpreted. For each group, violent ideological (M = 1.36), ideological nonviolent (M = .30), and nonviolent nonideological (M = −1.65), the classification rates are 91.7%, 83.3%, and 100%, respectively. These results indicate that progroup information (r = .35), new media incorporated (r = .20), traditional media incorporated (r = .24), emotionally evocative graphics (r = .67), tightness of control (r = .61), and accessibility (r = .22) are strong indicators of group type. Of these, the variables with particularly high loadings were progroup information, emotionally evocative graphics, and tightness of control. These findings are very similar to the first analysis in that the discriminating variables emerging here were all found to have significant differences in group means. Other variables that did not predict group membership in the DFA but were found to significantly differ across groups were neutral/antigroup information, intended use: informational, sophistication, and visualization capability.
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Given the remarkably influential nature of ideological groups on individuals personally as well as on society as a whole, increasing our awareness of how these groups use online websites to promote their ideals and further their causes is extremely important. As such, the focus of this study was to expand our knowledge of ideological groups generally and, more specifically, to examine how they use the internet as a means of conveying their beliefs and values. The results of this study have provided at least some evidence suggesting that with respect to ideological group websites, violent ideological sites have several characteristics distinguishing them from websites of both nonviolent ideological and nonideological groups.
Our first finding was that the promotion of progroup information predicted violent ideological website status, and this characteristic was significantly higher for violent ideological group websites than nonviolent nonideological ones. Certainly, this finding is not surprising given the nature of ideological group members. Since members develop a sense of identity from their ideology, it provides a framework from which they base their goals and values, and formulate a worldview which they perceive to be universal and true (Author, 2008). Although no differences were found in the post hoc procedures between violent and nonviolent ideological websites regarding progroup information, it is interesting that only violent but not nonviolent ideological group websites were predicted by an overabundance of information in line with the group. One potential explanation for this finding stems from the strong sense of moral superiority typically held by violent ideological groups (Moghaddam, 2005). This perception of righteousness may lead violent ideological groups more than nonviolent ideological groups to disseminate as much information as possible promoting their superior way of thinking. In addition, because violent ideological groups often require members to essentially discard their personal identities for that of the group's (Post et al., 2002), inundating a website user with progroup messages may serve to foster the process of fully adopting a group identity.
Related to the above observation, we also found that a group's usage of multiple media types on its website predicted its classification as a violent ideological group. Specifically, more varied methods of information sharing such as videos, flyers, newsletters, books, and music clips were found on violent ideological group sites than other types of group websites. In order to ensure the consistency of the information and values being conveyed, however, the group itself or another group directly affiliated with the one in question was often the original source of the media. For instance, Volksfront International's webpage features news, video clips, and music but each piece of media is contained within the group's own internet domain. Nonetheless, using a variety of mediums to spread their ideological beliefs, violent ideological groups may be able to create a sense of a larger community of shared values than actually exists. By repeatedly exposing individuals to the same principles and ideals in a multitude of ways, violent ideological groups may be able to generate the impression amongst their followers in addition to potential members that their ideology is not only right but recognized by a large community of people. One should note, however, that both violent and nonviolent ideological groups had websites incorporating new and traditional forms of media to spread their messages and did not differ significantly from one another on these characteristics as shown by the paired comparison analyses.
Another important predictor of violent ideological group websites observed in this study was the presence of emotionally evocative graphics and images. The Tukey post hoc procedure similarly showed a greater presence of affectively-charged images in the violent ideological group sites than the nonviolent nonideological group websites. Previous discussions of ideological groups have highlighted the importance of affective processes in the indoctrination and maintenance of ideological group members (cf. Wood, 2000; Spoor & Kelly, 2004; (Monroe, Hankin, & Van Vechten, 2000). Consistent with the notion that affective framing helps foster group commitment and builds a sense of group identity (Author, 2008c), violent ideological websites included in our study revealed a reliance on such emotionally laden images.
Finally, the websites of violent ideological groups were predicted by a strictly controlled online community. Post hoc analyses confirmed this increased tightness of control present in violent ideological group sites over nonviolent nonideological group websites. Not only were violent ideological group sites more difficult to access, but they featured more explicitly defined rules and regulations as well as less user control over online settings, content, and information. A common feature of nonideological group sites in addition to nonviolent ideological group sites was the ability of members to customize their online profiles to include such things as personal information, pictures, videos, and web links. However, almost none of the violent ideological websites gave their members similar control. Further, while nearly all websites regardless of group type required new members to provide an email address before using the site's message boards or forum, only violent ideological group websites ever made it a practice to delay membership approval until an application could be officially approved by a site administrator. Also, with some of the violent ideological websites, the researchers' membership was actually removed or cancelled due to inactivity on the site. With law enforcement agencies taking an increased interest in ideological groups, especially those with a history of violence, such added security is not unexpected. It should be noted, however, that despite the increased tightness of administrator control over the websites of violent ideological groups, no membership applications filed by the researchers were ever denied. Taken as a whole, these observations suggest that although violent ideological groups are extremely protective of their ideological principles and beliefs, they must remain accessible enough in order to attract and recruit new members to their belief system.
Additional results from the multiple comparison procedures revealed a number of website characteristics showing a greater occurrence in the nonviolent ideological group sites. First, visualization capability and sophistication were higher in nonviolent ideological websites than nonviolent nonideological group and violent ideological group websites, respectively. Likely these observations are a result of the increased financial resources available to nonviolent ideological groups. Many nonviolent ideological groups openly engage in fundraising, often advertising widely online, on television, and in magazines. Though violent ideological groups also ask for donations, their appeals for monetary support are essentially limited to members on their websites. Further, nonviolent ideological group websites were rated higher than violent ideological sites on both intended informational use and inclusion of neutral information. Although all ideologues are concerned with spreading their ideological beliefs and values, nonviolent groups may be more open to discussing other topics as long as those subjects do not contradict their core ideological ideals. Finally, regarding the heightened informational intent of nonviolent ideological group sites, we believe this finding is not surprising given these groups' willingness to discuss multiple topics. Violent ideological groups use their websites to communicate their ideological message but oftentimes do so without sharing evidence for their position. Instead, the superiority of their worldview is assumed. On the other hand, nonviolent ideologues, while unwavering in their convictions, use their online communities to convince others of their beneficial and morally just way of thinking. Therefore, for nonviolent ideological groups, sharing information in support of their beliefs is commonplace and a preferred approach to lending support to their cause.
As important as these findings are, we must acknowledge a few limitations of this study. First, our sample of group websites was limited to a total of 36 with only 12 groups in each of the three categories (i.e., nonviolent nonideological, nonviolent ideological, violent ideological). It would be inappropriate to assume that the group websites selected for investigation in this study are representative of all websites belonging to the different group types. In fact, some group websites were excluded due to characteristics of the site such as substantial membership fees or changing webpage content. Other sites were not coded as a result of canceled memberships as explained previously. Nonetheless, we were able to identify specific website characteristics that did predict violent ideological group membership despite our limited number of group sites. Also, only violent ideological group websites ever canceled our membership, lending even more evidence for the tight control maintained by these types of extreme groups. What is more, the violent ideological groups examined in this study varied drastically in relation to the focus of their ideologies. For example, PETA is concerned with the ethical treatment of animal whereas Army of God is a group that opposes abortion and homosexuality. Indeed, our results demonstrate that the manner in which a violent ideological group uses its website to communicate its beliefs and values is seemingly unaffected by the message of its ideology. Unfortunately, the small sample sizes did not permit within-group analyses to test whether specific ideological values could be predicted by website characteristics. Future research should examine this issue to determine if differences exist among violent ideological groups regarding website use and design.
Another limitation that must be considered is the select group of predictors examined in this study. Websites are very dynamic and complex. With changing content and material embedded within layers of interconnected pages, it was not practical to code certain features in this study. Further, because the features that were coded also are susceptible to website modifications, subsequent research should try to replicate our findings in order to determine if the current predictors remain stable over time.
Also, one must take into account the criteria used to select our groups. In particular, groups were included only if their online community had a message board dedicated to the group. This inclusion criterion stemmed from our desire to examine message board characteristics in this study. However, many group websites do not have a message board or forum. It is possible that these groups have regular face-to-face gatherings or they use traditional media outlets such as newsletters in order to socialize and share information. Whatever the case, studies should seek to broaden our knowledge of online groups and their behavior by investigating an even greater number of group websites. To be sure, as political, hobby, self-help, and hate groups all find a home on the internet, understanding how these groups use the World Wide Web to share information and provide a place for their members to communicate and socialize is an important endeavor for research to pursue.
Even taking these limitations in to consideration, the present study offers some significant implications for the study of computer-mediated research on groups. Unmistakably, the internet has provided a truly unique environment for groups to communicate. Members from across the world can interact with each other virtually or make plans for meeting in person (Author, in press). Also, groups can use online websites as a means of recruiting new members and promoting their shared interests or, in some cases, their ideology (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2000). Because groups founded on an ideological system may be particularly attractive to individuals seeking an identity with others (Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993), prosocial groups such as community service organizations or special needs advocates could adopt some of the same strategies used by online violent ideological groups in creating websites that are appealing and welcoming to prospective members.
Further, given the prominence of online groups in today's culture, knowing a group's underlying values especially with respect to their stance on violence is critical. As we observed while conducting this study, even a known violent ideological group's proclivity for violent behavior is not always apparent after viewing its website content. Our results demonstrate, however, that by studying the way a group uses the internet to facilitate group member communication and express its worldview, website characteristics can be used as predictors of an ideological group's tendency towards violence. Future research should work towards identifying more website characteristics and online behavior that could inform law enforcement or watchdog agencies about groups that may be likely to commit violent acts.
In the midst of a global landscape wrought with war against ideological extremists and the presence of violent ideological groups in positions of political power, increasing our knowledge and understanding of these types of groups is critical if we are to effectively communicate with or combat them. Just as important is the need for more research focusing on their online activity. Certainly, the internet has become a key medium for ideological group operations (Stanton, 2002) and online forums a primary means of group member communication (Author, in press). The present study has taken a significant step forward towards understanding how violent ideological groups use the internet as a means of ideological expression, information sharing, and intragroup interaction. Our results have revealed promising findings that specific and identifiable website characteristics exist that can effectively predict a group's violent ideological status.