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Researchers: social media can connect extremists, radicals

Social media can connect radicals,...

COLUMBIA, Mo. - A Columbia man is accused of attempting to help ISIS carry out a terror attack in Missouri. Investigators started talking to Robert Lorenzo Hester, Jr. through social media under the guise of someone involved in the terror group. 

According to University of Missouri associate professor of communication Brian Houston, social media is a common way for people to connect and, potentially plan terror plots. 

"In the most recent case of the man from Columbia, federal authorities used social media," Houston said. "They presented the opportunity to get involved through connections on social media as a way to capture him and identify him as a radical."

Houston said the agents were tapping into some of the same tendencies that occur across social media platforms when groups may be trying to recruit individuals. 

"It's reassuring that the federal government is engaged in this type of work and active there, but it also shows the potential for these connections to be in place of bad actors getting together and deciding to do horrible things," said Houston.

According to the attorney general's office, the FBI started monitoring Hester's social media accounts after posts he allegedly made expressing hate toward the United States. Hester also had multiple accounts, two of which had photos of the Black Flag of Tawhid.

The undercover agent initiated conversation with Hester through social media. Houston said social media can be compared to an echo chamber, where we follow and are friends with people who share similar ideas and values as our own. 

"When we think about violent extremism then, if you are a potential radical or extremist and you are getting connected with other potential radical or extremists, and the echo chamber is that chamber of extremism, then that’s a problematic situation," said Houston. 

Terror groups, including ISIS, are commonly known to recruit online, creating a "homegrown terrorist" situation similar to Hester's. Hester was born in Missouri and was briefly enlisted in the Army. It's not clear when or why Hester allegedly started having thoughts about attacking the U.S. 

“After these connections are made, those interactions and information can make individuals or contribute to individuals becoming more polarized, more radicalized, more likely to do things," said Houston. 

He went on to say some people may have one idea and become more radicalized once they begin interacting with like-minded people. 

"Not only do they find potentially actionable ways to do things, they become more serious and become firmer believers as a result," Houston said. "So social media spans some potential in this domain that we wouldn't see otherwise if social media didn't exist."  

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