Paris Attacks, and Memetic Immunity

By now you have heard about the terrible tragedy that happened in Paris last night. Armed gunmen stormed a at rock concert and set off detonations around a football stadium, 120+ people lost their lives. My sister was studying in l’Ecole Polytechnique, my friends working near Parmentier, city center. My heart stopped for a few hours, waiting to hear back.

Over the next few weeks, police will be investigating the operations, but I think it is crucially important to also take a step back, and think about the larger ramifications.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it “the first of the wave.” French president Hollande responded by proclaiming it as an “act of war.” It does not help the cause of the asylum seeking refugees flowing into Europe that one of the attackers was found to possess a Syrian passport, and had passed through Greece on his way to Paris. While France mulls the appropriate military action against ISIS, we must confront a strange and unsettling fact: what happens is real life is just a piece of the iceberg for the digital operations that ISIS is waging on our minds.

If you have spent any time looking at ISIS and the methods that they used to recruit their “soldiers”, you should be terrified. They are well skilled in social media. They tweet, they facebook, they hijack “trending hashtags” to broadcast their messages to the world. They are literally “growth hacking” their recruitment.

I don’t say this to take lightly the death and destruction that ISIS just wrought in Paris. Rather, the dissonance of the violent ISIS warrior with the cat is precisely the point. By showing their soldiers eating jars of nutella, they are humanizing their members while they commit acts of brutal inhumanity on their opponents, from beheadings to tortures to shootings. This is not a coincidence. ISIS is waging a sophisticated brutal war of the mind parallel to the brutal acts in real life.

If we want to understand ISIS, we must understand the question: How has ISIS convinced 550 young women, some of them teenage girls in comfortable London middle-class families, to leave the comfort of their lives and attempt the illegal and perilous journey to northern Syria? By tapping into something fundamental about human nature — the need to matter.

Germs and Memes

When Cortez landed at the shores of modern day Mexico, he brought only 500 men. And yet, he was able to subjugate the great civilization of the Aztecs, whose capital Tenochtitlan had some 200,000 citizens. How? Germs.

“One of Cortés’ men contracted smallpox from a member of the force from Cuba. That soldier died during the Aztec rebellion, and when his body was looted, an Aztec caught the disease, which spread like wildfire because the Aztec people had no immunity to it.”

Cortez and his men grew up in the crowded, narrow streets of Europe, was exposed to and survived a myriad of pestilences and diseases. When they visited the New World, the people they touched did not possess centuries of inoculation, and succumbed immediately.

Today, public health may have eradicated small pox, but we face a different kind of virulent infection. An infection of memes — ideas so powerful, they can rewrite your entire identity, and convince you to drop everything in your life in order to emigrate to Syria and take part in a holy war.

Is is a coincidence that ISIS recruits the very young, who have yet to be inoculated from the dangerous memes that could exist on the internet? When ISIS recruits, they crawl twitter looking for two things. One is Muslim faith. The other is evidence of depression, loneliness, frustration, alienation. With today’s social media, and culture of self-exposure, these signals are not hard to find. When a match is found, the ISIS recruiter “charms” the target — by offering them visions of a life of importance, meaning and grand struggles.

ISIS is a virulent infection that spreads on something fundamental — the human need to matter.

A British Journalist describes a conversation with one of the girls who joined ISIS:

“She had other things in common with the various women I spoke to. Many spoke of being constrained by everyday life, and of longing to be part of something bigger. “You can’t just live life waiting for the next weekend to come,” Umm Kulthum wrote once. “Your aspiration should be greater than that.” She shared one important trait with the bulk of online Isis supporters: a belief that a global war between “true Islam” and “the kuffar” was taking place, and that Muslims had to choose a side.

- Fight Club

As human beings, we have a psychological hunger to matter. The reason that ISIS is able to recruit so effectively, is because they give potential disgruntled recruits a mainline of meaning, and hijack this human need to matter with a sweeping story of jihad, God, destruction.

What is to be done?

If we want to counter the rise of ISIS, it is not enough that we fight with airstrikes. Instead, we must meet them on the battlefield where they are largely unchallenged — the battlefield of the mind.

Jared Cohen — director of Google Ideas and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy, recently published a recent paper on the idea of Digital Counterinsurgency, advocating for the development of an agile, sophisticated team of social media specialists, to reach out to those who ISIS is recruiting. We must develop effective alternative narratives to the meaning that ISIS peddles, and disseminate memetic immunity to our children in the same way that we provide flu shots, to inoculate them against the recruitment tactics of ISIS. We must fight against ISIS not only with bullets, but with bullet points. Misinformation can only be countered by correct information, if ISIS is a super-user on twitter, the forces of reason and moderation must have a strong presence of their own.

I imagine that with a little ingenuity and a twitter firehouse, it is not impossible to use machine learning to identify when ISIS is recruiting, and when they release their propaganda media. Twitter and Facebook should respect the freedom of speech, but use these intelligent filters to limit ISIS’s social media influence.

We must fight against ISIS not only with bullets, but with bullet points.

Unfortunately, our capabilities have a long way to go. When I discussed the potential to create an agile social media/data science response team to counter ISIS on the internet with a former US diplomat, he just shook his head, and said: “I don’t see the State Department being able to do something like this anytime soon. The enemy has evolved. If we want to prevent another Paris, we need to keep up.

Further reading:

  1. Building a memetic immune system for the internet: