We need to talk about boomer radicalisation | #ukscams | #datingscams | #european

Andrew Leak, the man named as the perpetrator of the petrol bomb attack on Dover migrant centres was, on the surface, an unlikely terrorist. Aged 66 and living in High Wycombe, reports paint him as a somewhat odd but largely harmless character. His internet history told a different story. Though he does not appear to have been led on to his attack by anyone else, there is a clear pattern of self-radicalisation

Analysis from Hope Not Hate, the anti-far-right campaign group, shows that his online presence was riddled with racism. He seemed to support Tommy Robinson and engaged with several other personalities who post inflammatory coverage of issues around migration. Elsewhere he posted theories about migrant boats being made by the UN, while his neighbours hinted at a belief in Covid vaccine conspiracies. An hour before the attack, he Tweeted ‘we will obliterate them Muslim children’. His story points to a new and worrying trend: the online radicalisation of older people.

Most terrorists are young men. Whether involved in far-right politics or Islamism, they tend to be recruited early. Around 10 per cent of terror arrests last year were of under-18s. Jack Renshaw, who plotted to kill MP Rosie Cooper was just 23 at the time, while a 17-year-old was convicted in 2020 for planning a ‘race war’ against synagogues in Durham. Jihadi John was in his twenties when he joined Daesh, while Shamima Begum was one of several Brits recruited to the Islamic state in their teens. Often they have flirted with non-ideological violence and been in trouble with the police.

The radicalisation of children and young people is perhaps easy to understand. Young people are impulsive and naïve. They often look for a purpose and an influence beyond their family circle, and are susceptible to the roguish charisma and simplicity preached by those at the extremes. Their families may be neglectful or distant, and they spend a lot of time on the internet, where hate and grooming fester. Those who fall into terror groups are not absolved of culpability, but their journeys are recognisable. The radicalisation of the old is a bit less intuitive. It is, however, happening.

Older people are more online than ever. The image of retirees as luddites is misguided, with most now having used computers at home and at work for years. The over 55s are more likely to use Facebook than teenagers, while around a fifth of global Twitter users are over 50. With time on their hands, the old can spend huge amounts of time on these platforms.

The ability for social media to amplify and exaggerate political beliefs is well-known. The algorithms push together like-minded people into echo chambers. These serve as a vicious cycle, amping up the volume in the absence of critical views. This easily becomes a constant barrage of inflammatory comments and social rewards for pushing the envelope. Equally the quasi-anonymity of online conversation makes people less reticent. And, the 24/7 nature of posting can make it a permanent firehose of politics to drink from.

Polarisation exacerbates this. For many, Brexit was the real genesis point for political activity online. The divisions spawned hundreds of groups, some popular, some niche, in which people cemented their own views and denigrated those of others. This overlapped with and continued into the Covid crisis, where responses to the controls and the vaccines became a mark of identity as well as understanding – careless granny-killers on one side of the debate, Bill Gates controlled rubes on the other. Race and immigration obviously occupy a similar place. Many groups and online spaces have cycled through each of these issues in turn.

Delving into such groups and the dominance of older people is obvious. Just a few minutes browsing through groups discussing the migrant crisis, such as ‘UK Home Affairs Discussion’, ‘UK Politics Time for Change’ or the pro-immigration ‘Leeds for Europe’ (each with tens of thousands of members) shows the discussion is populated by profiles with grey-haired pictures. It’s a similar scene on Twitter when you scroll through the hashtags related to the crisis or the vitriolic replies to politicians’ statements about it.

Strikingly, the extremes of these issues seem to particularly attract older people. Vote Leave was known to skew to older voters, so it’s hardly surprising that hard Brexit voices did too, but it was noticeable that the #FPBE movement and People’s Vote marches were often also dominated by retirees. The eye-catching Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion protests, extreme interpretations of the environmental cause, are frequently led by people in their sixties and older. In the USA, the QAnon movement has had a similar impact, and analysis of the January 6 incident showed rioters were mainly over 40, and many much older.

Anecdotally, almost everyone I know has a story of a retired relative or family friend who has gone down the rabbit hole of online politics. This is not simply older people having unfashionable views, but being sucked into a world of conspiracy and permanent outrage. Many have given up on mainstream news outlets, subscribing to cranky YouTube channels, Facebook, and Twitter, rather than regular TV, radio, or papers. WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels also provide a more private flow of misinformation. These people’s views have veered into conspiracist thinking, with popular tropes centred on Covid vaccines, the ‘stolen’ 2020 US election, and the World Economic Forum generally running things. Often this has made them angry and isolated, unreachable by anyone who doesn’t buy into their world view.

In some ways it’s perhaps not surprising that boomers are susceptible to online radicalisation. Many, especially those who have suffered family breakdown, are lonely. They are often depressed, with the 45-64 age group having the highest suicide rates for both sexes. Those who retire often have time on their hands and get sucked into spending it online. All of this was compounded by two years of lockdowns which curtailed other social interaction. Equally, they may not be as acute in discerning legitimate and illegitimate sources as younger, digital natives. The same things that make them susceptible to online scams make them vulnerable to disinformation. In such circumstances, it’s easy to see how they might go looking for companionship online and pursue it into the most dangerous of places.

For most who go down this route, it can be a personal tragedy. People in the US already talk of losing contact with their QAnon-devoted parents, and there is a real risk that the boomers who fall into this trap will become more isolated, angry, and unhappy as their politics spiral into extremism. Yet this is not where the threat ends.

Last month, a Michigan murder-suicide was linked to the middle-aged perpetrator’s online radicalisation. It appears Andrew Leak was seemingly motivated by mental health issues colliding with loneliness and an unhealthy obsession with online politics. Darren Osborne, the 48-year-old jailed for a vehicular terror attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, took a similar path, again ending in violence.

Just as with young people, extreme online communities can draw in the mad, the bad, and the sad. For some it will be a passing phase, others will be drawn into a life of lonely anger, harming them and those who love them. A very small minority, however, may cross the line into violence, whether through organised groups or ‘lone-wolf’ style attacks. We are well aware of the threat to young people from online radicalisation and how it can harm both them and society. We need to be more aware of how it can affect older people too, before there are more Andrew Leaks.

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