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Moral Panics, Internet Radicalisation and the Woolwich Murder

July 6, 2013

Lee Rigby was murdered in London on 22nd May 2013. He was returning to the army barracks in Woolwich where he was living when he was hit by a car and then murdered by two men wielding knives and a cleaver. This event took place in broad daylight on a busy street in the capital city. The brutality of the murder seems incomprehensible, as was the apparent randomness of the attack: Lee Rigby was targeted because he was a soldier – his attackers knew nothing more about him. They even took time after the assault to talk to passers-by, some of whom recorded the interaction on their mobile phones before uploading the footage to social networking sites including YouTube.  We can see one of the attackers talking here, speaking directly to camera for about a minute and a half, outlining a series of factors that he claimed had influenced their actions, including religion, politics, British foreign policy, war, death and the global order.

Both men were subsequently shot and wounded by armed police officers, and taken away to hospital. Video footage of the event was used repeatedly by the mainstream media, bringing a new ‘real time’ dimension to the attack and increasing its shock value considerably.  An anti-Muslim backlash erupted in various parts of the UK, with a series of assaults on both mosques and men and women.

It is not surprising, given the seriousness and the unexpected nature of this event, that there has been intense speculation as to why it might have happened, and what might be done to prevent it happening again. A familiar story has emerged, picked up and carried in all of the major news outlets, that the attackers had been “radicalized on the internet”, supporting a narrative of the internet as a place where extreme views are contained and where people who harbour vicious, murderous intent have a safe and secure home; the internet, and more specifically social media channels such as You Tube, Twitter and Facebook, are portrayed here as the sites through which vulnerable young men (and women) are radicalized. The phrase ‘cyber jihad’ has been coined to describe aspects of internet activity. At the same time, Lee Rigby’s murder is also being used to strengthen the argument for the passing of a Communications Data Bill that will give the police and others more powers to investigate citizens’ use of the internet, the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’.

It is important now to take a step back from this, to ask – what is going on here? Should we view Lee Rigby’s murder as part of a wider campaign of terror or as an isolated, horrific event?  In seeking explanation and understanding of the events in Woolwich, there is a natural desire to seek to distance them from ourselves and our everyday lives. The remote nature of the internet provides a ready vehicle for this: we can re-assure ourselves that, lurking somewhere deep in the shadows of the internet, social media channels exist where young disenfranchised, minority groups become ‘radicalised’, (a few years ago we might have called it ‘brainwashed’). By creating this spectre that empowers our ‘folk devils’ (Cohen, 1972), we create a comfort space between ourselves and their actions. In other words, developing a narrative of ‘extremism’ means that you have decreased responsibility for the actions and motivations of the extremist. Your safety is secure. But is it? Or is it more likely that the reaction to extreme events like this may actually lead to a worse (and less safe) situation for all of us, as classic moral panic theory suggests? History shows us that moral panics about religious extremism are nothing new; the current social anxiety about young radical men is also familiar because it reminds us of earlier moral panics centred on the behaviour of young people (Cohen, 1972; Thompson, 1998).

So to return to Lee Rigby’s murder. Latour (1993) suggests that to understand people, we must place them in their ‘networks’, in the social, political, economic and technological world that they inhabit and interact with. If we listen again to the YouTube footage, we hear the explanation/justification of one of the attackers, as he rails against government policy, war, bombing of countries, racial and religious intolerance and the anger of young people. He clearly locates his actions in a network, which he understands in his own unique way. To get close to understanding his actions we need to understand his network, in all its complexity and all its brutality. I would like to suggest that the internet is only one potential aspect of his network; it is akin to suggesting that publishers are responsible for what happens after people read books, or that violent films lead to violent actions. This is a dangerous path: content is not created by the medium, rather content is created, in this case, by the actions, thoughts and beliefs of human beings. It may well then be conveyed in a variety of mediums, but the crucial point is that the vehicle is a container for the message that is created by the thoughts, feelings and opinions of individuals. This then interacts with the networks of individual actors in a similarly complicated journey, in a process which we must try to understand in all of its unique multi-faceted complexity.

It is an ironic fact that the most immediate and apparent use of the internet and social media in the murder of Lee Rigby came from those who passively filmed the actions of the perpetrators. The true extent of any part played by the internet and social media in this terrible crime has yet to emerge; only then can we learn the lessons that it will offer us.


David McKendrick,

6th July 2013



Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, Trans. Catherine Porter, Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thompson, K. (1998) Moral Panics, London: Routledge.


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