Cults and Online Violent Extremism

Newcombe, Suzanne; Harvey, Sarah; Cooper, Jane; Forrester, Ruby; Banks, Jo and Shah, Shannon (2023). Cults and Online Violent Extremism. Reports; GNET, London.




The word ‘cultic’ is applied to a diverse range of online activity. This label is not always intended to convey a negative judgement; for example, individual influencers, music groups and brands aspire to a ‘cult following’. However, the use of the words ‘cult’ or ‘cultic’ is usually intended by the speaker as a judgement to draw attention to something that may have some elements typically associated with religion (for example, idealisation of a particular individual, a specific worldview and/or ritual practices) as well as the potential to cause harm and violence.

This report proposes three ideal-typical groupings of online cultic activity that can glorify and inspire violent extremisms: ‘Cultic’ Religious Groups, ‘Online Cultic Milieus’ and ‘Cultic Fandoms’. This is not an exhaustive description of online activity that has been termed ‘cultic’ in popular culture, but it provides a good starting point for further analysis. This report argues that the understanding of ‘cults’ and online activity needs to be carefully nuanced; the complexities of online and offline activities that might result in violent extremism need to be analysed and risk assessed at the level of both group/social movement and individual.

It is important to understand that there are a range of ways individuals interact with these cultic online environments that may or may not represent warning signs or pathways into violent extremism. A holistic understanding of both the nature of the cultic online milieu and an individual’s engagement with that environment is warranted before making assumptions about the nature of any individual’s engagement.

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