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Iran looks for spreading jihad in the UAE through online gaming

Iranian regime, Iranian, UAE, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, ISIS, United Arab Emirates, Institute of Strategic Dialogue, Neo-Nazi

Counterterrorism

Iran looks for spreading jihad in the UAE through online gaming

Iranian regime and its proxies such as Hamas are making frantic bids in spreading jihad within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) through online gaming. Similar methods are also applied by other jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS). While such notoriety has been continuing for months, authorities concerned in the UAE as well its counterterrorism and intelligence agencies are in total dark.

Over the last few years, the topics of extremism and radicalization have reached the forefront of concern in gaming communities. Specifically, this concern has centered around the potential for extremists to leverage the extensive reach of games and gaming cultures for recruitment, propaganda dissemination, signaling, networking, and mobilization We have seen these concerns voiced in the media, as evidenced in the 2021 article featured in Wired entitled ‘How Roblox Became a Playground for Virtual Fascists’, but also from organizations like the Department of Homeland Security and the UN Office of Counter Terrorism who have both held workshops and produced resources specifically focused on the intersection of extremism and digital gaming spaces.

Detailing jihadist activities on gaming platforms, research psychologist Rachel Kowert said:

As it stands today, most of what we know about extremism in games is that extremist actors and content are present in digital gaming and gaming-adjacent spaces. In 2021, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) released a report looking at the presence of the extreme right, specifically, on gaming-adjacent platforms. They found that Discord, one of the most popular third-party chat servers for gaming communities, serves as a hub for right-wing socializing and community building. In this report, ISD also reported the presence of white supremacist content on Twitch, an online streaming platform largely centered on gaming content, which was found to be broadcasting content promoting white supremacist worldviews that could be found with relative ease. Steam, an online platform where one can buy, play, and create games, was also found to house a range of servers created for far-right and neo-Nazi groups.

Within this landscape, there are also games created specifically for the propagation of extremist ideology. For example, Hatred, a mass shooter “genocide crusade” simulation game for the PC released in December 2014. This game is still currently available to download, play, and share on Steam. Over-the-counter games can also be modified to reflect more extreme worldviews, for example making a Hitler-led Nazi Germany a playable nation in a modded version of the Civilization series.

The presence of extremist content in gaming spaces was further explored in 2019 by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which reported that one in ten young gamers aged 13 – 17 are exposed to white supremacist ideologies in games. In 2021, this number rose closer to 10% of all game players, but it remains unclear if this disparity across time is due to differences in sampling or actual changes in the landscape. It is also important to note that in this ADL report, players reported experiencing exposure to the most explicit forms of white supremacist ideologies across PC, console, and mobile platforms. It is likely that these observations are just the tip of the iceberg.

While we know extremist content, radicalization, and recruitment are occurring in games, there is still little understanding of how and why this may be of particular concern among gaming communities. In a new research article I, alongside my colleagues at the University of Texas, Alexi Martel and William B. Swann, explore one potential mechanism through which extremist ideology may permeate gamers and gaming communities: identity fusion.

Identity fusion is a psychological construct that refers to a sense of oneness felt between oneself (i.e. individual identity) and a group (i.e. social identity). Typically, we have our individual personal identity (the “I’s”) and our social identities (the “we’s”) and these identities are separate. But sometimes individual and social identities fuse together when the borders between the two become more porous – this is identity fusion. hen fusion happens, an individual is more willing to enlist the personal self in service of the group. That is, more willing to make personal sacrifices for group goals.

Traditionally, fusion happens when people feel a deep emotional bond to their social group that forms over time through shared experiences, shared norms, and close friendship bonds. As such, fusion research has typically focused on nationalist and military groups – “Once a Marine, always a Marine” comes to mind. However, the above characteristics are also central to gaming experiences and communities.

As such, we hypothesized that the distinctive environment of gaming spaces and game players may also foster identity fusion, particularly as many people seek gaming communities for social connection. In fact, a major appeal of gaming communities is their capacity to offer a sense of closeness, belonging, and security for individuals who need it the most. However, gaming cultures can also be spaces in which hateful, harassing, and toxic behaviors and language are commonplace. This includes racism, misogyny, and extremist ideologies. Gamer communities, therefore, represent “a double-edged sword”; on the one hand, they may provide a sense of social connection and purpose, but on the other hand, gamers may be exposed to hateful speech, social toxicity, and extremist propaganda. In the worst-case scenario, those most entrenched in the community may be lured into embracing extremist beliefs, leading them down the path to radicalization.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow him on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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