In his article “Unknown knowns: subjugated knowledge of terrorism studies” Jackson notes that it is quite surprising that terrorism analysts don’t work in closer collaboration with conflict studies. He writes that
how is it that the ‘known’ knowledge of the causes and resolution of violent political conflict (including conflicts where terrorism was present), which has accumulated from decades of conflict analysis and peace research, among others, remains largely ‘unknown’ within the terrorism studies field? Why is it that within terrorism studies research continues apace on questions related to terrorism’s causes and effective responses without reference to the key scholars and existing studies of peace and conflict studies?
My research (yes, the one I always keep on babbling about) also started with an interest in how approaches from conflict mediation could be used to understand violent online political extremism. My assumption was that — rather than go the path of surveillance and censorship — we should perhaps understand this “dark” side of internet freedoms as manifestations of underlying conflict. And as the refugee crisis quickly emerged as the conflict du jour in Europe, I also wanted to test how comparative approaches from media and conflict research (my previous work had looked at Ethiopia) could be applied back to the European context.
(You know these funny anthropologists who study tribal conflict in faraway places and then decide to come back home and look at our “civilised” societies instead …)
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM HERE?
So during the first months of research, I closely observed what my fellow countrymen had conjured up during this particularly bizarre tribal conflict I was witnessing. What I found was rather enlightening:
Zyclon B helps exterminate rats from the the Earth.
We should have a target shooting competition in the Mediterranean. The one who hits the biggest rubber raft wins.”
In fact, in countries such as Finland such speech had become so common online that it had raised a nation-level discussion about the “polarisation” taking place between the “multiculturalist” tribe and the “anti-immigrant” tribe and what threat this could pose to social stability.
Yet another curious development I noticed during my exploratory phase was that, in these anti-immigrant online communities, mainstream media was routinely rejected as a credible source of knowledge. Instead it was accused of being in cahoots with the government to hide the real truth about the costs of the refugees and their transgressions. It its place, there were numerous alternative news sites — often spinning news with no factual basis of regurgitating outright fake news — who were promoted as “freedom of speech” alternatives to the elite-government-multicultural conspiracy. This tribal polarisation could be thus seen in two ways: both in the content, in what was being said, but also in the kinds of news sites that were trusted as credible sources by different online communities.
For instance, when Facebook announced that they would try to find ways to counter hate speech on Facebook, the anti-immigration forums had a pre-existing narrative to explain why this was the case. A commentary in the conservative Breitbart news site, widely shared on different online forums, illustrates this well:
Everyone suspects, of course, that “hate speech” is little more than a clumsily-disguised codeword for European anger at the atrocities committed by refugees. With self-defence militias on the rise across Europe, it’s little wonder that elites are concerned. The prospect of a breakdown in law and order, caused by their disastrous immigration policies, is now very real. Instead of admitting their mistake and asking for their citizens’ forgiveness, however, they are committing the age-old folly of elites: trying to suppress the people’s anger from the top down.
This rejection and skepticism of mainstream news is of course nothing new. It is one of the characteristic of all extremist groups, and has been pinpointed by social movement theory as one of the mechanisms through which such movements create collective group identity.
Similarly, in peace and conflict studies, one of the most important characteristics of conflict escalation is the kind of polarisation of viewpoints that I also observed in these online communities. In other words, when a conflict escalates, it becomes extremely difficult to communicate between the opposing groups. This is because everything that is said is always-already framed through the ideological contours of the conflict. More information or facts do not make a difference — instead they can make things worse:
In conflict situations, the problem is often one of an abundance rather than dearth of information … people often know already — on emotional and irrational grounds — what they should think. They filter out information that does not match their expectations, and as a result, information that threatens to undermine their established opinions is simply discarded. People tend to believe their assumptions are correct and do not need to be questioned. The idea that people would want information in order to arrive at better decisions is based on the assumption that processes of decision making proceed in orderly and rational ways (Hamelink 2011).
This raises a problem for efforts aimed at countering extreme speech online. One of the ways to do this is what is called counter-speech: that is, to create alternative messages, which would diminish the narrative power of the extremists.
From a conflict studies perspective, however, a better narrative is useless if it is negatively interpreted in the conflict. While there is good work that had tried to better incorporate the context of speakers and audiences in counter-speech efforts (see Zeiger and Aly 2015), we do not yet even properly understand this shifting relationship between the different online communities and their sources of information. If we want to provide effective communicative strategies during conflict, would it not make sense to first better understand the dynamics through which different online communities accept or reject information sources as trustworthy irregardless of how sleek the content produced is?
WHAT COULD BE DONE?
Archetti (2013) argues that “anti-terrorism messaging is based on obsolete theories of communication.” According to her, there are three problems with these approaches:
The first is that the availability of extremist content — as also the existence of a terrorist “narrative” — is not the problem per se … even if extremist messages are accessed, the key issue is the individual appropriation of those contents through the interpretative prism of the beliefs and worldview resulting the individual’s stance in the social world.
The second implication is that attempting to target radicalised individuals with the “right” message is a waste of time. The notion that we can change a radical individual’s behaviour through the appropriate message, in fact, is largely unrealistic … the reason why “our” narrative is not having any effect on the extremist mindset is that “our message” is filtered through a very different personal worldview, grounded in a specific constellation of relationships that shapes an extremist’s social context. In this perspective communication, counter-intuitively, is most effective not directed at the terrorists or violent extremists, but at the context around them.
Finally the narrative is not just a story. It is a story that is being continuously re-told … There are too many channels to stop the narrative from being communicated (2013: 8–9)
With this in mind, I suggest here that what could be done is a shift of focus from what is being said to who says it. We need to ask the following question: could online radicalisation/extremism be better understood as a function of the relationships online communities have with different sources of information? In other words, if one of the definitions of polarisation/radicalisation is indeed the impossibility of forming a communicative relationship (and the resulting rejection of the Other regardless of what they say), could the problem be then translated into an analysis of the communicative relationship these groups have with different knowledge sources they access online? That is, given that we are dealing with hyper-mediated social media communities and the complex dynamics of sharing news online, could this problem be thus translated into a function of how different information sources (mainstream, alternative) are linked to, shared and formed affective relationships with (accepted, negotiated, rejected)?
What this would mean in practice would look somewhat the following:
Through mapping such relationships of knowledge — that is, analysing (1) the kinds of information they access; and (2) their rejection of particular news sources considered mainstream or moderate — we could thus perhaps better understand the contours of conflict and where the risks of it escalating into violence (risk communities indicated by a highly negative relationship to all contrary opinions or mainstream sources). This kind of “heat mapping” of the communicative predisposition of different online communities could also perhaps help better understand what kinds of counter-messaging might be useful and, moreover, where and when they might be useful given the knowledge-producing boundaries of the conflict.
Or maybe not. Just a quick idea I have been thinking about lately. To be surely continued…
Archetti, C. (2013) ‘(mis)communication Wars, Terrorism, Counterterrorism and the Media.’, in D. Welch (ed.) Propaganda, Power and Persuasion. London: Tauris.
Hamelink, J (2011). Media and Conflict: Escalating Evil. Routledge: New York
Jackson, R. (2012) ‘Unknown Knowns: the Subjugated Knowledge of Terrorism Studies’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 5:1: 11–29.
Zeiger, S. and A. Aly (2015) ‘Countering Violent Extremism: Developing an Evidence-based for Policy and Practice’.