Does fear of terrorism push Europeans to vote for right-wing Eurosceptic parties?

What are the factors that fuel the electoral success of right-wing Eurosceptic parties and leaders?

In a recently published open access article co-authored with Ana-Maria Bliuc, Avelie Stuart, Constantina Badea, Daniela Muntele and Craig McGarty, we examine empirical evidence about the role of terrorism perceived threat in boosting support for Eurosceptic parties in Europe.

Based on media reports, one might think that the threat of terrorism may have played a role in boosting the electoral support for right-wing Eurosceptic parties. For example, the results of the 2015 French regional elections might suggest that electoral support for the National Front increased in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. However, research looking at European attitudes before and after the Paris terrorist attacks found that there is no evidence of average impacts across a range of issues, from xenophobia, political attitudes and policy preferences. Similarly, a subsequent study found no evidence of the impact of the 2016 Berlin terrorist attack on anti-immigration, anti-refugee and anti-European Union sentiment.

We used Eurobarometer data and four experimental studies conducted in Italy, France, Romania and the UK to investigate the relationships between perceived threats (i.e., terrorism, but also economic and immigration) and support for Euroscepticism and right-wing Eurosceptic parties.

We find that terrorism threat is a smaller predictor of Euroscepticism than the perceived threat of immigration, and that its effects are not consistent across countries.

You can read the full article here.

We need whole-of-society evidence-based approaches to address hate against minorities

The Christchurch terror attack conducted by Brenton Tarrant highlights the need to create policies to better understand and prevent hate.

As I have written in a blog post on the AVERT website, we need new media ethics protocols for media, journalists and tech companies, combined with better education for private social media users. You can read my blog post here.

At the same time, we need to develop national capacities to plan prevention, reduction and policing strategies. The ability of Australian state and federal governments to create policies to address hate against minorities is limited by the lack of data about the nature, incidence and trends of the phenomenon. As I explain in this article, it is imperative to foster a shared culture among all stakeholders of hate prevention, more oriented towards research evidence. The creation of an an integrated database containing de-identified data about hate against all minorities, and the development of a new victimization survey focused on the multifaceted expressions of hate against minorities, can allow us to understand the phenomenon and develop better policies to address it.

You can find some of my commentaries and media engagements in Italian language as well, here and here.

The impact of the Cronulla Riots on the evolution of the Australian far-right

White supremacists used to be a violent and isolated racist and anti-Semitic political vanguard. In recent years, we have seen former neo-nazis moving towards the political mainstream and forging alliances with activists from Black, Asian and Jewish backgrounds in the name of anti-Muslim agenda.

This does not mean that anti-Semitism disappeared from the radar: far-right groups still target Jewish communities, which often do not overwhelmingly support activists that ally with former neo-nazis. However, the identity of the Australian far-right has somehow changed, as also suggested by previous research on this topic.

Ana-Maria Bliuc, John Betts, Muhammad Iqbal, Kevin Dunn and I have just published an article where we study how and why the Australian far-right changed its political focus and identity.

We examine over 14 years of online communication between members of Stormfront Downunder, the Australian sub-forum of the global white supremacist community We analyse members’ language use and discourse before and after the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

Our study finds that the riots were associated with significant changes in the collective beliefs, emotions and consensus within the community, reinvigorating a sense of purpose with a stronger anti-Muslim agenda. For example,  we find that after the Cronulla riots the use of words like “Islam”, “Muslim”, “Lebanese” sharply increases, together with words like “immigration”, “multiculturalism” and “culture”, and words related to violence such as “bash”, “violence” and swear words.

The mainstreaming of far-right movements and their shift towards anti-Islamic agenda is a global phenomenon. Our study finds evidence that the 2005 Cronulla Riots played a major role in triggering this process in the Australian context.

Our article has been accepted for publication in the journal New Media & Society. You can read the article pre-prints here.

Why do people engage in political violence and terrorism? New systematic review of the scientific knowledge

The reasons why people participate in political violence and terrorism remain a matter of contention. Scientific research has increasingly focused on this issue, but there is a lack of understanding of the overall findings of this body of research. One of the unexplored areas is the literature that used the notions of “radicalisation” and “extremism”. Probably the main obstacle to conducting systematic reviews of this body of research is the ambiguity of key terms such as “radicalisation” and “extremism”, which by their very nature identify a relative position on a continuum of opinions and behaviours. Some scholars even deny that radicalisation exists.

In a recent study that I co-authored with Ekin Ilbahar, Muhammad Iqbal and Greg Barton, we select and categorize all scholarly, peer-reviewed, English-language articles published between 2001 and 2015 that empirically investigated the factors of “radicalisation” into violent “extremism”.

This review findings suggests that radicalisation, in its fundamental mechanisms, so far as recent scholarly literature in English is a guide, is a cross-ideological and global process that entails similar fundamental categories of factors: 1- a political or social grievance (“push” factor), 2- a reward or appeal of violent extremism (“pull” factor) and 3- a personal vulnerability or predisposition (“personal” factor).

We also find important geographical and other differences in the frequency of the factors within the larger aggregate categories of “push”, “pull” and “personal” factors. In other words, the causes of radicalisation may differ in different contexts, even though the categories of factors are recurring.

Although the methods used in this field are getting more rigorous over time, there are still unanswered questions about the causal relations between factors and outcomes. For example, there is no definitive answer to the question whether the adoption of an extreme ideology precedes engagement in violence or it follows it. Moreover, certain push factors (such as poverty) and personal factors (such as demographic characteristics and personality traits) certainly precede radicalisation because of their nature, but others (such as the development of a mental disorder) might, at least in some cases, also follow or develop alongside radicalisation, being, in part, caused by it.

We propose that future research should aim to understand the interaction between push, pull and personal factors for both cognitive and behavioural radicalisation, and the specific conditions that develop the emergence of different types of those factors in certain contexts. A number of very important questions remain to be addressed. For example: do all push, personal factors have the same effect on the radicalisation process? What is the specific combination of personal, push and pull factors that triggers radicalisation in a specific context? Are there any differences in the push, pull and personal factors that predict cognitive and behavioural radicalisation? What factors are more important to identify the move to action?

We believe that these represent some of the most important questions that disciplined and theoretically informed empirical research should focus on, to move this field of scientific inquiry forward.

Book launch: How is Terrorism Changing Us?

If you are in Melbourne and interested in this topic, don’t miss the launch of my book How is Terrorism Changing Us?

For a description of the book content see here.


Please register here to attend the book launch:

WHOProf Kevin Dunn will launch the book

WHEN – Monday 3 September 2018, from 5pm to 6:30pm

WHERE – Deakin University, Burwood Corporate Centre, 221 Burwood Highway

HOW – Informal, drinks and canapes


The book launch is part of the program of the AVERT Research Network Symposium on “the politics and ethics of conducting research on violent extremism and terrorism”. Please register here to attend the AVERT Symposium:


Book Launch Flyer_v2

How is terrorism changing us?

In my recently published book (2018, Palgrave MacMillan), I try to answer the question: How is terrorism changing us?

To provide an evidence-based answer, I analyse large public opinion datasets from Europe, United States and Australia, and I present the results of five original experimental studies conducted in Europe and Australia.

The results suggest that an exaggerated perception of terrorism threat can push democracy to its limits for the following reasons:

  • It can increase support for draconian policies and anti-system attitudes.

Not only centre-right but also centre-left voters are ready to support illiberal policies against minorities and sacrifice civil liberties in the name of security when they perceive high levels of terrorism threat. Higher threat perception is consistently associated with anti-establishment attitudes (such as Euroscepticism) and populist political preferences (such as supporting Donald Trump).

  • It can exacerbate the differences between ideological and religious groups.

The perceived threat of terrorism pushes religious and political identities away from each other. Left-wing people tend to dismiss the threat of terrorism, right wing people tend to see it as the main threat to their nations. Higher perception of jihadist terrorism threat makes people cling to their religious identities, and see members of other religions (especially Muslims) as out-groups. As a consequence, people tend to diminish trust for members of other ideological and religious groups.

  • It erodes trust between immigrants and host societies in multicultural democracies.

Large segments of the society, when under stress, project their anxieties onto certain communities that are regarded as threatening and deviant. The perception of terrorism threat is consistently associated with negative views of immigrants and support policies that reduce the civil liberties and rights of immigrants.

What can we do to counter the negative effects of the perceived threat of terrorism?

The solution should be holistic. I argue the main ingredient is trust, specifically:

  • trust in democratic institutions, which needs to be addressed by resolving underlying issues such as injustices, inequalities, inclusiveness, fairness among others;
  • trust in minorities and other out-groups, especially through education and knowledge in the formal system and in other contexts such as community projects;
  • trust in the media, which can be established through increasing media literacy, the establishment of a code of terrorism news reporting and more emphasis on accurate and evidence-based information.

Bringing about change is not someone else’s responsibility: this is a cultural change that can only start from us.


How do we reduce Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims in Australia? New research evidence

Policy makers struggle to understand how to strengthen social cohesion and reduce prejudice and Islamophobia. In our latest article, Professor Fethi Mansouri and I provide critical evidence to inform policy directions in the diversity governance space.

Research in the field of social psychology has explored prejudice reduction mechanisms and interventions for decades. Our article expanded this line of research by exploring the relationships between self-reported knowledge (that is, what people think to know about Islam), factual knowledge (that is, what people actually know about Islam) and contact (that is, how many Muslim people they know).

Our study finds that knowing more about Islam, and knowing more Muslims, is linked to less prejudice against Muslims. However, people who think to know Islam, but do not know any Muslim and do not have correct information about Islam, are the ones who have more prejudice. Even when they have high level of formal education.

This evidence suggests that promoting correct knowledge about Islam could diminish the barriers that prevent people to accept meaningful interactions with Muslims, which in turn contributes to reducing prejudice.

To conclude: beware of those who say that they know a lot about Islam and who display high level of prejudice against Muslims: there is a very high chance that their actual knowledge of Islam is highly inaccurate!


Does fear of death make people more extremist? New evidence published in the journal Political Psychology

Why do people engage in terrorism? There are a lot of opinions about it, and only a comparatively small number of empirical studies. Terror Management Theory is one of the few theories that has the potential to shed light on this issue and provide a basis for informed policy responses.

In a nutshell, Terror Management Theory posits that when people are reminded of death (for example, when they experience the loss of a loved one, or for example when they live in war-torn countries), they will employ, if unconsciously, a range of behaviours and cognitions that act to psychologically buffer them from death anxiety. A handful of empirical studies found that reminding people of death increased support for racism, martyrdom and sacrifice to protect one’s country. Based on these studies, many scholars have argued that thoughts of death, even when evoked by death-related images on TV and the internet, can lead to increased political aggression and support for extremist views.

However, in this article just published in Political Psychology, we find that reminding people of death can increase people’s support for foreign military intervention for combating violent extremism, but it cannot increase the support for violent extremism among non-extremist samples. We argue that future research needs to overcome methodological and theoretical limitations before evidence arising from TMT can be usefully relied upon to inform efforts to reduce radicalization, extremism, and terrorism.

The article is largely based on my PhD thesis, and it was co-authored with Kerry S. O’Brien, Peter Lentini and Greg Barton.

Italy migrant shootings. When the failure to recognize right-wing terrorism is a threat to counter-terrorism

Italy is failing to recognize that a right-wing terrorist attack has happened in the streets of Macerata. On Saturday 3rd of February, far-right militant Luca Traini, 28, opened fire from his car against African immigrants. The drive-by shootings lasted about two hours, and at least six people were injured. This attack perfectly fits all the criteria of a terrorist act: 1- a political ideology motivating it; 2- the indiscriminate killing of symbolic targets; 3- the attempt to send a message of intimidation and fear. If in the case of Stephen Paddock’s Las Vegas shootings we can’t identify a clear political motive behind the violence, in this case the political intent is more than obvious. When the police surrounded Triani, he took his jacket off, he wore the Italian flag and gave the Roman salute. Later on, the investigators found Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other neonazi materials in Traini’s house. If Traini had been inspired by jihadist propaganda and if he had an ISIS flag around his neck, he would have been labelled immediately as a “lone wolf terrorist”.

However, the Italian institutions are failing to recognize Traini’s act as terrorism: prosecutors accused him of attempted mass murder aggravated by racist hatred. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Internal Affairs and other opposition leaders such as Berlusconi defined Traini as a “crazy man” and a “criminal”. The local branch of the Northern League party in Macerata suggested to the press that Traini had personal – not political – motives. They told the journalists that Traini was in love with a young woman whose dismembered body was discovered hidden in two suitcases days earlier the shootings. The alleged perpetrator of the heinous crime was a Nigerian asylum seeker, which would explain Traini’s revenge against “black people”. Even though the Italian investigators found that Traini never knew this woman, the case is often mentioned in the Italian media as an emotional trigger of the shootings. It is also important to mention that in 2017 Traini was a failed election candidate of Italy’s party Northern League, which currently holds about 13% of the national vote in the opinion polls, and it is likely to win the upcoming elections in March in coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

It is possible that Traini is mentally unfit (as his lawyers understandably try to say), and it is also possible that the brutal killing of a young woman by the hands of an asylum seeker was an emotional trigger of the action. However, this would not change the terrorist nature of Traini’s act. About a third lone wolf terrorists are not mentally fit: about a third of lone actors have mental health issues. Moreover, almost all terrorists act in the name of a real or perceived injustice. Some are even motivated by personal losses, like the famous example of the Chechen “black widows”.

Right-wing politicians like Northern League’s leader Salvini told the press that illegal immigration is the “root cause” of “social conflict” and violence such as Traini’s act. Neo-fascist political party Forza Nuova went as far as openly saying “today we stay with Luca Traini”. These parties are proving to be the mirror image of the the Islamist parties that, in the Muslim world, fail to condemn jihadist terrorism in the name of the perceived injustices that they claim to avenge. Most of the Italian newspapers published a full-size picture of Traini with a neo-Nazi tattoo prominently on his forehead and an Italian flag tied around his neck. Conversely, it is almost impossible to find the photos and names of the African nationals who were wounded by Traini. The political discourse, coupled with this visual news coverage, is likely to “glamourize” Traini and to inspire copycat attacks in the fragile minds of like-minded far-right individuals. This is a real risk widely acknowledged in relation to jihadist terrorism, but still ignored in Italy, especially in relation to far-right terrorism.

Failing to recognize terrorism can undermine our ability to address it. For reasons we don’t fully understand Italy, hasn’t had a major terrorist attack. When it will happen, we should be ready to recognize it as such in order to deliver a right and balanced response, and to preserve a cohesive society. Failing to recognize crimes such as rape and domestic violence risks to create misunderstandings that make things much worse. Suggesting that a girl with a tight skirt provokes sexual assaults is a dangerous culture that we have to fight against. At the same time, suggesting that the presence of immigrants provokes tensions and violence is unacceptable. Ultimately, this will undermine the counter-terrorism efforts, escalating violence and de-legitimizing the state institutions because they will be seen to apply double standards. This would be a gift to ISIS’ recruiters, whose job is to manipulate the feelings of injustice of disenfranchised people who feel left alone by the state. I want to finish this piece citing Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox: “When islamists commit acts of terror we rightly hunt down the hate preachers who inspired them. We should do the same for the far right.”

The psychological characteristics of ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists

Why do ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists attack more religious targets than al-Qaeda’s? Why do they target more journalists? Why is the lethality of attacks against soft-targets (such as night clubs and music venues) increased with ISIS? In our new article, Ana-Maria Bliuc and I suggest that ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists have different psychological characteristics than al-Qaeda’s.

Firstly, we use computerized linguistic analysis to examine the differences in the psychological dimensions of language used in two English-language online magazines published by ISIS and al-Qaeda. We find that ISIS’ language is higher in authoritarianism and in its level of religiousness, compared to al-Qaeda’s.

Secondly, we conduct an experiment with American participants, and we find that being high in religiousness and authoritarianism predicts more positive attitudes towards the language of ISIS but not towards the language of al-Qaeda.

Taken together, the results suggest that ISIS might be more effective than al-Qaeda in mobilizing individuals who have an authoritarian personality and are more focused on religion. Our findings also suggest that the individuals who are potentially more attracted to ISIS propaganda in the West exhibit higher levels of concern with religious affiliation compared to those who are more likely to be attracted by al-Qaeda’s propaganda. The results might also shed light on why ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists are increasingly targeting victims that are members of religious, moral and political out-groups.