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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Social Apocalypse: A Forecast

By J.M. Berger

Tens of thousands of foreign fighters found their way to Afghanistan during the 1980s, without benefit of the Internet. More than 900 Americans found their way to Guyana in the 1970s, to die in the Jonestown massacre. Extremists have always found ways to make contact with like-minded recruits.

For a long time, I resisted the idea that social media was a global game changer. As new companies sprouted up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, each promised its technology would change everything. They came and they went, some faster than others, some still lingering in a vegetative state. Compuserve, AIM, Napster, Friendster, Tripod, Geocities, MySpace, Digg… It was hard to take their grandiose claims seriously.

But some survived, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. And I have watched as they changed the global game.

Many of these changes are neutral or good – from enabling global commerce to empowering free expression in authoritarian societies. But social media has also revolutionized the business of violent extremism, perhaps more profoundly than any other sphere.

In 2011, I wrote that terrorists use the Internet the same way that everyone else does. That is no longer true, and perhaps I should have seen it coming sooner.   

The last eight months have seen wall-to-wall chaos, with violence coming from multiple directions and diverse ideologies, capable of landing anywhere in the world, attacks that specifically target people by race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – resulting in widespread fear and anger among people of every identity group. The list goes on and on and on… Paris, Normandy, Nice, Brussels, Munich, Ansbach, Dhaka, Würzburg, San Bernardino, Orlando, Malheur, Dallas, Baton Rouge, a wave of stabbing attacks in Israel, attacks on mosques and Muslims.

There have been many cosmetic changes to extremist recruitment and radicalization in the Internet era, but also a few fundamental shifts. Recruiting in cyberspace offers critical advantages over meatspace – a term coined from cyberpunk novels of the 1980s and 1990s to describe the old-fashioned world of human bodies in proximity to one another. They include: 

  1. Security. Recruiters can search online for prospects without exposing themselves to scrutiny, and they enjoy better anonymity when they approach a target. Potential recruits can forge relationships with violent extremists before exposing themselves to physical risk in a face-to-face meeting.
  2. Discovery. Recruiters and potential recruits can now hunt through a target audience of millions to find each other. Before they were constrained by the cost of travel and the risk of exposure, and the reduced reach that comes with working in meatspace.
  3. Remote intimacy: Recruitment is ultimately about relationships. In a world of networked social media, it is easier to build intimate relationships over geographic distances, even while maintaining some veneer of anonymity.
  4. Speed of contagion: It took centuries for early Christianity to overwhelm the Roman Empire – enough time for its early apocalyptic strain to evolve and moderate, allowing for the rise of institutions to stabilize its belief system. Today, ideas spread as fast as they change, often faster. For now, at least, the contagion can outrace the evolutionary pressures that push movements into moderation. This shift favors more extreme ideas, which propagate faster than ever before. 
None of these dynamics are exclusive to jihadism. All of them are new developments in social interactions, and all of them have consequences.

The most prolific and extreme offender on social media has been the Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL, whose message has been broadcast around the world on social media, with extraordinary speed and success. But the Islamic State’s social media effort has peaked, and its successors are already on the rise.   

Consider white nationalism, an ideology that went through an extended period of decline, with sharp losses starting in the late 1990s and continuing through the 2000s. The movement’s adherents were fragmented, factionalized and isolated in the face of a powerful social current against overt racism. Now, a mix of political factors and the rise of social networking have sparked a worrying resurgence.

One element of white nationalism’s decline was its marginalization from the mainstream of society. The role of mainstream media gatekeepers was crucial in reinforcing that isolation through the second half of the 20th Century. Overt white nationalism was rarely found on editorial pages, and its leading figures were rarely seen on the news, except in a negative light. Popular entertainment and culture reinforced messages promoting diversity.

Social media was not the only factor driving the return of white nationalism – the election of an African-American president, economic and demographic shifts, and a new flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war all provide important political context. But the mechanics of the resurgence were swifter and more volatile because of instantaneous global networking, and some key offline factors – including the rise of the Islamic State and Donald Trump’s racially divisive presidential campaign – have been profoundly empowered by access to social media.

Early social media, such as bulletin boards and message boards, provided rare forums where white nationalists could gather and share their views without fear of censure. But when open social media platforms emerged – including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – a pressure valve burst open, releasing a scalding jet of steam.

After decades of being silenced, white nationalists could suddenly organize into significant audiences, sometimes as many as tens of thousands of people, sometimes more. Functional anonymity insulated many adherents from the professional and social consequences of professing overt racism in the real world. And they could project their message to audiences who had not sought them out – hundreds of thousands more. 

While estimates of the total population of white nationalist supporters online are less concrete than those for the Islamic State, my preliminary research shows substantial increases in activist social media accounts since 2012, congruent with the rise of nationalist political movements in the United States and Europe. The total, at the least, runs into six figures. (These gains are detailed in my new paper for GWU’s Program on Extremism.) 

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone active on social media. Journalists, experts, celebrities and ordinary people are now routinely exposed to torrents of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic abuse. Efforts to highlight this activity and shame the perpetrators often simply encourages the abusers and exposes more people to their message of hate, a paradox familiar to anyone working on jihadist social media.

Much of this abuse is organized, rather than spontaneous, and white nationalists are only part of the picture. From “Trumpkins” to “Bernie Bros,” antisocial content surrounding contentious online personalities has skyrocketed, carried out by users for whom trolling has become a consuming vocation, in some cases literally.  

Online culture has also led to convergence between those who sincerely believe in an extremist ideology, such as Nazism, and those who instrumentalize that ideology as an outlet for less defined antisocial impulses such as harassment and bullying. Some users eventually become true believers after starting out simply as antisocial harassers. Author Jesse Walker called this the “Mother Night” phenomenon, referring to a Kurt Vonnegut novel whose theme is summed up in the quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Some pranksters and professional trolls now routinely skip among ideologies, and state-sponsored trolls are often on hand to pour fuel on the fire. One Jewish-American arrested for supporting the Islamic State turned out to be a full-time troll posing as everything from a jihadist to a neo-Nazi to radical feminist. Sometimes he argued with himself using his various accounts. His jihadi persona was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, and sincere or not, he played a real part in supporting the Islamic State and encouraging terrorist attacks. He will not be the last such chimera we see.

The truly bad news in all of this is that the Islamic State was the easy problem.

The hyperactivity and hyperviolence of the Islamic State’s social media is prone to break most social media platforms’ terms of service, the rules that users agree to when they sign up. The Islamic State is also a discrete organization, an entity with a geographic locus. And it is the ultimate outsider, so incredibly marginalized that virtually no one will advocate on its behalf as its social media accounts are suspended – not even al Qaeda.

Consider then the much greater challenge that lies ahead. White nationalism is not an outsider in Western civilization, by any reasonable measure. We are scant decades past its overt domination of Western politics, and it is enjoying a resurgence today in the form of nationalist political parties and candidates throughout the Western world. While some white nationalist adherents are careless about the terms of service, many color within the lines, if only barely. While many people are repulsed by white nationalists and their principles, others are busy electing them to public office.

The blurred lines create new challenges. Even with Islamic State social networks, a handful of people have objected to disruption and suppression on the basis of free speech concerns, while not defending the group itself. For extremist movements that are less brazen and more integrated into host societies, the difficulties multiply.

For instance, sovereign citizen propaganda almost certainly leads some adherents to violence, but sovereign content does not typically cross the line with explicit calls to violence, as defined by most social media companies’ terms of service. Race hate without a threat of violence is not consistently suspended despite pertinent rules in social media platforms’ terms of service.

These problems cannot be easily solved. There is no central authority to litigate social media conflicts, which cross lines between private companies and public discourse, and must accommodate multiple jurisdictions around the globe. Few would favor such an approach even if the many practical obstacles could be surmounted.

It is possible that some sort of social or technological solution to these challenges will evolve organically, whether through the restructuring of online social platforms, the emergence of truly positive viral movements with real staying power (as opposed to the current paradigm of surge and fade).

But as of now, there is little visible reason for optimism.

While not everyone uses social media, those who do play an increasingly dominant role driving public policy and mainstream media coverage. What happens on social media matters, although it does not always provide a straight line from intention to result.

And although social media is a key facilitator of extremist sprawl, there is also a spillover effect. Public spectacle violence – more and more often inspired by social media – dominates the mainstream media, which takes cues about what to cover from social media, resulting in more coverage that reaches more people, inspiring copycats and creating more curiosity about extremist groups, which can then be satisfied online.

I believe we are seeing the start of a massive social reorganization with serious implications for global and national security.

Salafists and white nationalists already excel at creating online echo chambers, flocking to follow social media accounts focused on grievances related to Muslim prisoners and black violence, respectively. Both white nationalists and jihadists have been hobbled by the lone wolf model for years, but the rise of super-empowered super-minorities – such as the Islamic State – has created a new path toward the successful mobilization of fractional percentages of global demographic groups.

Russia, Iran, Syria and other state actors have carefully and strategically built their own echo chambers. Anarchists, socialists, sovereign citizens and black nationalists are not far behind, although various factors have slowed the crystallization of their social networks.

While there is no consistent estimate of the Islamic State’s foreign fighter base, no one believes it is greater than tens of thousands of fighters. Yet combined with its other assets, the Islamic State has thrown the world into a frenzy of activity, both productive and counterproductive.

Ten thousand people are a drop in the bucket compared to the population of the world or even most nations. But ten thousand people acting in concert can disrupt events on a global scale.

One million people comprise less than two one-thousandths of 1 percent of the world’s population. But one million people acting in concert can wreak unimaginable havoc. We are marching toward an event of that magnitude, whether next year, or in ten years.

We are not ready.

Turbulence, at least in the near-term, is almost assured. In the worst-case scenario, governments, social media companies and civil society will completely fail to agree on how to implement solutions. Without meaningful controls, we will see millions of people organize themselves according to racial, class or religious identity in defiance of a generation of progress toward pluralism. We will see migration driven by social media ties – as we have already seen with the Islamic State.

In the United States, white separatist movements have already staked out territories for a racially pure homeland, and travel to those territories is far simpler than making hijra to Syria from the West. We will see weaker movements attempt to implement the same sort of headline-grabbing broadcast violence that the Islamic State has perpetrated, along with ultraviolent splinters from larger mainstream radical currents. The current mainstreaming of white nationalism likely poses the most imminent threat of expanded broadcast violence, which the current political cycle is likely to aggravate. 

In a best-case scenario, the forces of tolerance and pluralism will organically evolve social media tools and dynamics that we cannot yet foresee, which will restore the status quo of a strong and resilient social center. While this is possible, maybe even likely, it seems certain that many years will pass before such tools and dynamics emerge and become widely adopted.

To reach this steady state will require great patience and a lot of luck. We will have to avoid hazards such as escalating sectarian and identity violence, moves toward segregation, and the potential for planet-destroying wars. Success is not assured, and we could experience serious violence and upheaval in the meantime.

Between these two poles is the middle road, with frequent viral outbursts of social instability amid only sporadic progress. If we’re lucky, these eruptions will take place consecutively, rather than concurrently, but that ship has arguably sailed.

This scenario still leads to a massive social reorganization, but more slowly, with slower transmission times for radical ideologies, which allow moderating influences to creep into extremist social networks.

Under this scenario, interim steps, such as the European Commission’s social media Code of Conduct announced in May, will provide some relief, while emerging behaviors and the inconsistent application of standards by different and new social media platforms will still allow surges through shifting loopholes. Progress will be stymied by new and unforeseen problems – such as when Twitter suspended a number of prominent accounts parodying the Russian government on the same day that the Code of Conduct was announced.

Freewheeling social media platforms, such as Twitter, may give way to more controlled environments such as Sidewire or adopt policies similar to Facebook, where users are (at least theoretically) required to provide real names and content is policed more aggressively. But there are many tradeoffs in such a transition, including limits on socially positive virality and the diminishment of value for OSINT and breaking news. Such a homogenization of social network models might not be ideal, but it may be a necessary stage on the way to a solution.

On the technical side, there are opportunities for innovation. The simplified structure and more-open data access offered by platforms like Twitter is ripe for exploitation to detect and address social trends before problems fully materialize. For instance, the extent of the the ideological and popular challenge that the Islamic State presented to al Qaeda was clearly visible online before it became visible in the news, as was the rise of Donald Trump and the fall of Jeb Bush. Currently, we have only scraped the surface of social media’s potential for early detection and forecasting of social trends.

On this middle road, the challenge from violent extremists and hate groups will persist, but slowly shift from large, drawn-out battles with extremists and harassers into a series of skirmishes that flare up and die down relatively quickly. As new ideologies and actors employ an ever-evolving array of techniques, fringe movements will establish beachheads on larger platforms -- such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube -- then take their adherents to smaller platforms where policing is less strict or less structurally feasible, as Islamic State supporters have done on Telegram

No matter which road we take, one intrinsic problem will remain. Social media has rapidly become the public square of the 21st Century. For many users, especially in countries with strict limits on speech and assembly, social media feels like a venue for free speech. But it is not.

Social media operates on a global stage made up of multiple overlapping jurisdictions. At the top of the hierarchy are the social media companies themselves. For all intents and purposes, these companies represent a genuine corporatocracy with near-absolute and – as of today – completely unaccountable control over who enjoys the benefits of speech and assembly.

Every large social media company suspends thousands of users per day for harassment, abuse, obscenity, pornography. They do not disclose the details of this activity. We do not know whether workers who police content reflect racial and religious diversity, or whether they are trained in those issues, and we do not know whether the demographics of users who are suspended reflect racial or religious biases.

While Twitter, Facebook and Google may have good intentions, they have very different and constantly evolving interpretations of their obligations and the boundaries of acceptable speech.

To date, social media companies have shown an admirable commitment to defying suppression of the Internet by authoritarian regimes, but these efforts will come under increasing pressure as markets like China beckon and political situations around the world grow more complex. While we may applaud social media companies’ efforts to promote free speech in these settings, we did not elect the executives of these companies in a democratic process to be the arbiters of acceptable speech on a global scale, nor do they have any particular qualifications for this job. Yet there is no immediate or obvious solution to the problem presented by the distribution of power and responsibility in this arena.

While we can hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst. For the foreseeable future, the advantage lies with the extremists. The coming era of radical change will likely be violent and unstable, and governments need to start preparing, by building resilience and innovating where they can, particularly in the area of early trend detection.

Instability can be survived, if we are prepared for it. What we cannot afford to repeat is the institutional response to the Islamic State, as a phenomenon that “came out of nowhere” in the eyes of many policy makers and news organizations, using tactics no one had foreseen. In a complex world, we must anticipate complex problems, not let them sweep us off our feet, over and over again.

J.M. Berger is a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter Terrorism, The Hague.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. 

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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