Researchers Shed Light on the Evolution of Extremist Groups

The findings of a new study by GW researchers suggest strategies to limit the growth of groups like the Boogaloos and ISIS.

May 19, 2021

Johnson Research

A new GW study finds early online support for the Boogaloo movement followed the same single shockwave mathematical equation as ISIS. (Image Credit: Neil Johnson)

Early online support for the Boogaloos, one of the groups implicated in the January 2021 attack on the United States Capitol, followed the same mathematical pattern as ISIS—despite the stark ideological, geographical and cultural differences between their forms of extremism. That’s the conclusion of a new study published by a team of George Washington University researchers in the journal Scientific Reports.

“This study helps provide a better understanding of the emergence of extremist movements in the U.S. and worldwide,” said co-author Neil Johnson, a George Washington University professor of physics and a researcher at the GW Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics. “By identifying hidden common patterns in what seem to be completely unrelated movements, topped with a rigorous mathematical description of how they develop, our findings could help social media platforms disrupt the growth of such extremist groups.”

The study, titled “Hidden Order across Online Extremist Movements Can Be Disrupted by Nudging Collective Chemistry,” compared the growth of the Boogaloos, a U.S.-based extremist group, to online support for ISIS, a militant, terrorist organization based in the Middle East. The Boogaloos are a loosely organized, pro-gun-rights movement preparing for civil war in the United States. By contrast, ISIS adheres to a specific ideology—a radicalized form of Islam—and is responsible for terrorist attacks across the globe.

Dr. Johnson and his team collected data by observing public online communities on social media platforms for both the Boogaloos and ISIS. They found that the evolution of both movements follows a single shockwave mathematical equation.

The findings suggest the need for specific policies aimed at limiting the growth of such extremist movements. The researchers pointed out that online extremism can lead to real-world violence, such as the assault on the U.S. Capitol, an attack that included members of the Boogaloo movement and other U.S. extremist groups.

Social media platforms have struggled to control the growth of online extremism, according to Dr. Johnson. They often use a combination of content moderation and active promotion of users who are providing counter messaging. In the study, the researchers pointed out the limitations to both approaches and suggested that new strategies are needed to combat growing threats.

“One key aspect we identified is how these extremist groups assemble and combine into communities, a quality we call their ‘collective chemistry.’ Despite the sociological and ideological differences in these groups, they share a similar collective chemistry in terms of how communities grow,” said Yonatan Lupu, an associate professor of political science at GW and co-author on the study. “This knowledge is key to identifying how to slow them down or even prevent them from forming in the first place.”