Generation Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem

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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.

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 presents 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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