Gen-Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem

ISD’s pioneering new research maps the rapidly evolving online Salafist ecosystem, providing a cross-platform snapshot of a broad landscape of English, German and Arabic content. Focusing on the resonance of Salafist ideologies among Gen-Z audiences, we unpack the implications for policy strategies and civil society responses. 

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Like no previous group, Generation Z (Gen-Z) have had their social and political life defined by social media and ubiquitous connectivity. Amid this ever-evolving technological landscape, Gen-Z have found their identities essentialised and polarised from a number of directions. As well as challenges to traditional lines of authority and a growing backlash against a range of established ‘-isms’ – from liberalism to globalism – regressive movements and ideologies are outpacing open, pluralistic ideas. This is exacerbated by a digital playing field that exacerbates division and atomisation, amplifying the most divisive messages and content.

In this context, Salafism – a reformist branch of Sunni Islam that champions a literalistic return to the faith practised by the prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers – has grown across Europe and North America. This cultural-religious phenomenon, which is frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted, has proven particularly attractive to Gen-Z as an emerging youth counterculture, providing a clear, black-and-white, rules-based value system in a chaotic ‘post-truth’ world, a strong group identity, and a provocative contrast to the orthodoxies of the religious establishment.

A broad ecosystem of Salafi-inspired groups – from apolitical scholars to online activists and violent extremists – hold a near-monopoly on search queries concerning religion, and dominate the ecosystem of religious videos on YouTube. Sectarian clerics are among the most popular online ‘thought leaders’ globally, with followings in the millions on Facebook and Twitter. Yet decision-makers seem to lack any understanding of this ideological landscape or how it impacts on the changing patterns of behaviour and belonging among Gen-Z Muslims online.

Over the past year ISD has worked to develop a first-of-its-kind digital snapshot of the rapidly shifting online Salafi ecosystem and its intersection with Gen-Z identities. In this broad programme of research we have analysed a spectrum of English, German and Arabic content, across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok and a range of standalone websites, comprising a dataset of almost 3.5 million posts across nearly 1,500 channels and accounts. Providing unique insights into the scale, platform landscape and key narratives within these online spaces, we also explore emergent online communities which see the merging of Salafi ideas with alt-right memes and gaming subcultures.

Across this series of reports, ISD presenting the findings from our digital analysis, as well as laying out the implications for effective policy strategies and proportionate civil society responses to these emerging ideological trends.

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Gen-Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem: Executive Summary

In this executive summary, ISD presents key findings from our pioneering research into the rapidly shifting online Salafi ecosystem. Exploring the intersection of Gen-Z identities and digital Salafism, the research explores a broad spectrum of English, German and Arabic content, including the resonance of specific subcultures, narratives and youth-oriented platforms. This digital research is contextualised within broader debates around Salafism and its online and offline manifestations, laying out the implications of the data findings for effective policymaking and proportionate civil society responses.

Understanding the Salafi Online Ecosystem: A Digital Snapshot

As part of ISD’s Gen Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem project, this report presents the findings from ISD’s data-driven snapshot of the Salafi digital landscape across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok and a range of standalone websites. This dataset of almost 3.5 million posts across nearly 1,500 channels and accounts provides unique insights into the scale, platform landscape and narrative tone of discussions within these online spaces.

 

Islamogram: Salafism and Alt-Right Online Subcultures

This report provides an ethnographic deep dive into an emerging online Salafi ecosystem, referred to by its members as ‘Islamogram’. This highly active online community merges Salafist ideas with alt-right memes and gaming subcultures, and represents a hybridised cross-platform challenge, speaking to an emerging trend characterised by increasing ideological fluidity between diverse online extremist communities.

 

Theoretical Overview: Gen-Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem

This theoretical briefing seeks to contextualise ISD’s research into the online Salafi ecosystem within the key political debates and terminological considerations that permeate current conceptualisations of Salafism. The paper outlines the limitations of established typologies which categorise Salafi adherents using terms such as quietists, activists and jihadists, and instead highlights an increasingly interdependent spectrum of ideological influence.

 

Methodological Appendix

This methodology paper provides an overview of ISD’s research approach for our data-driven snapshot of the Salafi digital landscape. The paper outlines the inclusion criteria, platform selection, and data-gathering approaches used to conduct the research, as well as the frameworks developed to empirically analyse narratives and formats within the Salafi online ecosystem. We also outline our unique approach to understanding ‘toxicity’ in the Salafi context, including the scoring and coding approach employed in our analysis.

 

 

Authors: Moustafa Ayad, Milo Comerford & Jakob Guhl
Senior Advisors & Contributing Editors: : Farah Pandith & Rashad Ali