Some thoughts on "gamification":
Where the loser takes it all
and Alix Levine
recently posted an interesting article at Foreign Policy
on the concept of "gamification," arguing that the structuring of jihadist online forums specifically and jihadist social networks more generally are strengthened by the gamelike qualities of the interactions. They specifically cited "rep power" -- a point-based system by which other forum users confer status by voting on the merits of users and their posts.
Anwar Awlaki, in his approach to interacting with online admirers, is presented as the example of how this process can be dangerous. According to Brachman and Levine:
By gamifying his followers' Internet experiences, Awlaki has been able to rally a more engaged online fan club than any other hardcore Islamic extremist to date. Through the creation of an online community of like-minded individuals, al Qaeda has mobilized these e-recruits through a natural process: competing with their peers for status and reputation. Awlaki has used gamification to do what al Qaeda had been unable to do before him, at least in any systematic way: get Americans to compete with one another to put down their keyboards and pick up their weapons.
Will McCants of Jihadica yesterday penned a good analysis of this analysis
, which I am adopting pretty much in its entirety. But I want to go one further.
I questioned Brachman and Levine on Twitter
about the implication in the paragraph quoted above, which is that "rep power" and success within the "game" correlates to violent acts. Brachman tweeted:
not necessarily that explicit. our goal was to elucidate an emerging trend. But chesser, begolly etc fit into the framework well
I would argue Chesser is actually a good example of how the premise has value but not as it's formulated here. Understanding gamification may provide insight into people who are moving toward action, but not necessarily as a correlation between "rep" type metrics and dangerousness.
Chesser was an avid user of the Islamic Awakening forum, one of those cited by Brachman and Levine in their article. Islamic Awakening is not the hardest of the hard-core forums. It falls more in the sphere of groups like Revolution Muslim and Sharia4UK, which carefully tread the line between very angry rhetoric and open embrace of terrorism. Posts are monitored and moderated to remove the most extreme sentiments (although the amount of moderation varies over time).
The archived pages I've saved from IA don't contain the rep metrics for Chesser and all of his posts have long since been deleted by IA moderators, but I know what his rep power was shortly before he was arrested while trying to join Al Shabab -- exactly zero. He had been banned from the forum and relocated most of his online presence to the Shabab-linked Al Qimmah forum, a much more militant venue, where he appeared to have done somewhat better (although, again, I don't have the stats archived).
Tracking mid-level forums like IA offers us a way to begin to diagnose users who might be moving toward violence because the moderators and users of IA are much better attuned to those who are dangerous to the game
. When Chesser began shooting off his mouth about South Park and "Counter-counter terrorism," users on IA shunned him because they knew he was trouble, as did his buddies at Revolution Muslim, who fired him from the blog. Most IA and RM fans are much more interested in talking about jihad and winning gamification points than actually committing violence.
Of course, many IA alumni have graduated to real militant violence and terrorism. But my point is that the example of Chesser suggests that when they make the leap, they start to lose "rep" and start to lose the game. IA users admire and love Omar Hammami because he's out there at a distance, like a sports star, where they can root for him but he can't bring any heat down on them.
Chesser, on the other hand, was seen as a loose cannon. When a Muslim is arrested on terrorism charges in the U.S., typically IA sponsors a number of supportive threads for him. For Chesser, they hosted a roast, accusing him of having "loose lips" and "digging his own grave," among other charges.
I think that game theory has some legs as it pertains to the forums, but it has to be interpreted properly. All of this is based on my impressionist reading of the forums and middling large archive of postings -- I'd love to see some concrete data if someone has a complete-enough archive.
But here's my take based on my reading: When someone is close to violent action, they're probably going to start losing the forum game.
When you're vicariously admiring terrorists, you talk about them and argue to justify them and engage other people in this discussion.
When you're planning to become
a terrorist, first your rhetoric gets edgier and more confrontational, alienating people (especially at the mid-level forums like IA) and driving your "rep" power downward.
When you've made the actual decision to become a terrorist or a foreign fighter, if you're smart, you're going to completely stop talking about it online. Now you have secrets to protect. You're going to become more guarded, much less publicly communicative. You'll be more focused on private conversations about the act you are planning, and less focused on the message boards. (Of course, anyone who gets busy in real life ends up having less time for Internet chat, not just terrorists.)
So I would argue that, from a counter-terrorism perspective, we should be scrutinizing those people who start losing
the game. When a user's militant leanings cause the folks at Islamic Awakening to disrespect, shun and ban him, that's the guy we should be worried about, not the guy with 1,000 "thank yous" and 99 rep points.
This isn't a sole indicator, of course. There are a lot of reasons you might lose the game. But if you see a high-volume user suddenly lose status because his rhetoric is too militant, if you see his posts being deleted by moderators, if you see him banned and relocated to a more extreme forum, I would argue that you're looking at someone who is worth a little more investigation.For more about American jihadists and their use of the Internet, check out J.M. Berger's new book "Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go To War In The Name Of Islam," the first comprehensive look at the phenomenon of American jihadists from the 1970s to the present, hitting bookstores May 15. Order now!UPDATE:
Alix Levine responds here
, and I respond to her response here
Labels: American-Jihadists, American-Terrorists, Anwar-Awlaki, Jihad-Joe, Zach-Chesser
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.