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Social Media and Extremism: Sideshow or Center Stage?

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CTOTerrorismblogOn Twitter, Mike Olson of Cloudera asked me and Alex Olesker what we thought about the use of social media in the latest dustup between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. He linked me to an article taking a broader look at the role of social media in terrorism and extremism. The following is some thoughts on how to think about the relationship of social media to social movements, extremist and benign. Tech audiences with a practical interest in tech and social movements can benefit from considering some theoretical perspectives not usually seen in most tech conversations.

2013 will likely see much more attention on information technology and social movements. In 2011, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street spurred debate about the tactical applications of social media, not all of it productive. On one hand, there was a “gee whiz” tone to much of the coverage that ignored other important dynamics. In October, Thomas Frank wrote a biting article about how journalists and academics, infatuated with the idea that OWS represented a radically new (and superior) form of social movement, ignored the substantial and sometimes self-imposed barriers to its success. The same can probably be said of coverage of the Arab Spring, much of it based on a simplistic image of kids with MacBooks and iPhones toppling autocrats. On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell and others denied the very real differences between social movements 1.0 and 2.0. Particularly useless was Gladwell’s presumption that analog-era activism was somehow more authentic and powerful than IT-mediated activism. So where to go from here?

First, social media can’t be analyzed with the presumption that social media is somehow separate from the overall web of social conflict. Rather, we should move forward with the assumption that we have one reality, composed of both organic and technological layers. Cyberspace is a sociotechnical system, which as CTOVision contributor Sean Lawson explains can be understood as follows:

[Sociotechnical systems] are large, complex systems in which the lines between the social and the technological, the human and the machine are increasingly blurry. As the passage implies, even something as seemingly simple as an airplane flying in the sky is actually just one part of a large sociotechnical system composed of various human and machine elements, from the pilot and airplane to a series of airports, communication and navigation systems, bureaucracies, regulations, rules and norms of flight, and more.

With the Arab Spring “twitter revolutions” we can see that human and machine elements and organizations all meaningfully combined to produce powerful and fundamentally emergent movements. Social media may not have been a primary cause but it also very much defined the realm of possibility for social action. Technology isn’t neutral, and certain technologies are more conducive to decentralized movements. Information age social networks have reduced transaction costs in a way earlier communications have not. There’s also a collaborative aspect that Alexis Madrigal covered in his post about the “APIs” of Occupy Wall Street.

The composition of sociotechnical systems also constantly shifts due to shifts in norms, regulations, rules, technological shifts, and bureaucratic hierarchies. Cyberspace may have some essential characteristics rooted in its function as a zone of machine-mediated communication, but it is also a designed environment with a constantly shifting landscape. Politics and networks of social capital are a part of that landscape, and this certainly includes extremist groups.

We can understand jihadi social media usage as being part of an overall assemblage of techniques, key personnel, and resources that constitutes a complex structure that can be tapped on by insurgents looking to advance their instrumental ends and communicate and discourse with an extended community of ideological fellow travelers. Israeli researcher Dima Adamsky argued in 2009 that, lacking the war colleges, doctrinal institutions, or military service journals of the West, jihadis debate theories of strategy evolve on web forums and zines. It’s still unclear how social media precisely fits into the radicalization process, despite the tendency of Western police departments to equate possession of jihadi media with radical intent. We’re on more solid ground in terms of tactical planning when we look at non-jihadi international social movements’ usage of twitter as a medium for directing protests and outsmarting police crowd control methods. Finally, there’s always the use of social media as a rapid-fire propaganda weapon that can influence external audiences and regulate and stimulate domestic audiences.

Police researcher John P. Sullivan has also written about how Mexican drug cartels have used social media to spread “narcocultura” in Mexican public life. When combined with coercive actions, narco-glorifying folk songs, provision of services, and murals, social media becomes a powerful means of making the violent image of the Mexican drug cartels part of everyday life. Jihadi groups have arguably not attained a similar level of cultural penetration, but Daveed Garteinstein-Ross and other counterterrorism experts have written about the ways in which jihadi culture–online and offline–can create a unique lifeworld for those who feel left out of secular culture.

Yet there’s a risk in looking at technology without the political and operational considerations. Terrorist organizations are clandestine in nature and practice tradecraft that limits their exposure to Western intelligence organizations. Thus assuming that covert networks function in the same way as social movements or Facebook friend groups is of limited utility. Taking down an extremist site is not equivalent to Second, there’s often a harmful tendency in tech analysis to place social media use as the dominant element of a social conflict. Reporters salivated over the IDF and Hamas Twitter-fighting each other and missed the centrality of actual combat to the outcome of the short Gaza conflict. At the end of the day, as Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie wrote, the “man on the scene with the gun” decides the war, not the kid with the iPhone.

A balanced understanding of the ways social media is vehicle for and a shaper of contentious political movements will be a net benefit to CTOs, tech reporters, and technologically-minded national security analysts. Watch this space for more on this subject in the future.

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Bob Gourley writes on enterprise IT. He is a founder of Crucial Point and publisher of CTOvision.com

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