NOVEMBER 16, 2015
Dateline: Paris — IN DECEMBER 2006, Time magazine famously awarded its Person of the Year Award to “you.” The decision was a nod to the advent of a new and prominent actor in online communications and media, one that promised to revolutionize the way in which we generated and consumed online content: the user. At the time, the most prominent examples of user-generated content were blogs and YouTube, which had officially launched little more than a year before. In the nearly 10 years since, blogs have faded from view, but YouTube, joined by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites and applications have taken the raw material generated by hundreds of millions, and even billions, of users, and fashioned it into a new hashtagged and “Like”-driven online media economy.
Along the way, they indeed revolutionized the way in which we generated and consumed media, particularly news and information. Cell phone images and video posted online quickly began to provide immediate coverage of natural disasters and other mass catastrophes from around the world. Later, it was a post on Twitter that broke the news of the operation in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Video of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attackers killing a Parisian police officer after the initial assault on the offices of the satiric magazine was first posted to Facebook. The user who uploaded the video subsequently removed it, but not before it had escaped into the online wild and, from there, into popular consciousness. We are seeing the same phenomenon now, in the aftermath of Friday’s blood-chilling roving attacks in Paris, which have been claimed by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, as witnesses and victims begin to share their footage of the night’s savage unfolding.
But in addition to unleashing the power for distant and unknown users to share information, the media revolution that Time flagged in 2006 has also radically altered the marketplace of new media, ushering in an economy largely fueled by viral content and clickbait. For its cover image announcing “you” as the winner of that year’s Person of the Year Award, Time cleverly covered the screen of the featured computer with a reflective material representing a mirror. And if that mirror was meant to reflect the vast majority of well-meaning and innocent users who generate the content that now helps fuel the new online media economy, ISIS represents the dark side of that mirror, a transnational ideology that uses that same viral economy to expand its reach.
This is most clearly evident in its use of terror, which in many ways represents a macabre and nihilistic use of clickbait to raise its profile and heighten its stature among the audience it seeks to reach. Of course, terrorists have long sought to publicize their causes with high-visibility attacks — the so-called propaganda of the deed. After all, if the goal is to terrorize, capturing people’s attention is a prerequisite. But ISIS has exploited the new possibilities presented by online media more effectively than any other terrorist group to have emerged in the era of the information revolution. That so many people who find its message, methods, and objectives aberrant and abhorrent have nonetheless watched its snuff and propaganda videos speaks to the level of mastery the group has achieved in manipulating the new online media economy.
Still, ISIS has done more than simply master the rules of that clickbait economy. It has also mastered the techniques necessary to convert some of the viewers it attracts to its ideology. And by successfully infiltrating the minds of even an infinitesimal number of European countries’ citizens, it no longer needs to infiltrate their territories. The threat, in other words, is not carried by a person or group across a border, as in the case of the 9/11 attackers who needed to enter the US to attack it, but already within.
This is why any successful effort to counter the group, in addition to including the necessary security components, must also make sense of ISIS’s appeal. And in seeking to do so, it’s a mistake to limit ourselves to examining the group’s use of new media. After all, ISIS is not the first terrorist group to diffuse its snuff videos online. Its precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, did the same thing. But in those early days of the online information revolution, these videos caused widespread outrage and disgust, triggering a backlash even among al-Qaeda sympathizers that ultimately led al-Qaeda’s central leadership to issue a directive reining in the brutality.
What has changed in the meantime is the advent of the viral economy in online media, whose structural logic has conditioned users to a near-compulsive and reflexive mode of online behavior that greatly facilitates ISIS’s messaging. And if the medium is indeed the message — and in this case the medium is viral videos and content — then we must begin to understand ISIS’s appeal as a sort of ideological virus, one that opportunistically infects people with a wide range of emotional and psychological profiles, but who usually share certain traits that include social marginality and exclusion, and the resentment bred of failed narcissism.
Adding this prism to our approach to the group’s appeal is not that big a leap from how we currently frame it. For the vast majority of ISIS’s Western acolytes, embracing the group’s ideology represents a radical conversion from whatever form of Islam they might have been exposed to previously. And however socially marginalized these people might be in their countries of origin, ISIS’s worldview is orders of degree more foreign than the Western societies in which they have been raised. This all suggests a phenomenon that transcends the strictly rational, so if we confine ourselves to rationality in our efforts to understand it, we are certain to fail.
Moreover, this wouldn’t be the first time a mental health disorder demonstrated the characteristics of a viral epidemic. The phenomenon of multiple personality disorder in the late 1970s and 1980s comes to mind. There are also precedents for links between mass media and a mental health disorder, most notably that of paranoid schizophrenics, who often hear messages in radio and TV broadcasts. Mental health workers are trained to ask someone who reports hearing such messages, whether from radio and TV broadcasts or elsewhere, if they have included instructions for acting out: David Berkowitz claiming he was ordered to kill by his neighbor’s dog; Charles Manson invoking Beatles’s songs.
Nevertheless, the messages heard in mass media broadcasts by paranoid schizophrenics do not exist as anything but symptoms of their mental illness. ISIS’s use of online media, by contrast, raises this phenomenon to a business model: broadcasted content designed and produced to specifically target anyone that would find its violent ideology attractive, whether they be marginalized, poor, radicalized, high-functioning mentally ill, or psychotic. The messages these people hear feed into their personal grievances, whether true or imagined; but the messages themselves, and the actions these people take in response, are dangerously real.
This virus has begun to infect the populations of its Western targets, but its spread has so far remained on a small scale and more or less contained to Europe. That could change, and is even very likely to, over time. For now, many of the French and European citizens who have traveled to Syria to join the group there, or who have been involved in attacks here in France and Europe, are clearly identifiable with socially marginalized communities of “others” — usually French-born children of North African or sub-Saharan African immigrants. And they often come from Muslim backgrounds, though from secular families that don’t practice a form of Islam that remotely resembles that preached by ISIS. But there are enough exceptions, including converts from outside Islam and from among non-immigrant communities, to make it clear that there is no natural or inherited protection from the group’s ideology.
For now, too, the equivalent phenomenon in the US — that of mass shootings — remains, in the best-case scenario, a self-referential imitative cult devoid of any ideological component other than fan-like deference to those who have gone before. In the worst-case scenario, it involves high-functioning people with the same kinds of mental health issues, including a psychotic disregard for their victims, displayed by ISIS’s Western acolytes. And there’s no reason to believe that either category benefits from any immunity to the group’s viral appeal simply because they are located in the US.
Perhaps it will take the most extreme of cases to drive this point home. One can imagine a young American male in an isolated and homogeneous community, with no previous history of political or religious extremist beliefs and no contact or experience with radical Islam of any sort, who in the space of a short period of time becomes enthralled not with the iconography of school shootings, but with that of ISIS. Perhaps then we might be convinced of the need to widen our understanding of ISIS and its appeal beyond the security paradigm we use to address it now.
But even then, it’s not clear how such a widened understanding might help us to counter the phenomenon. Clearly, there must be a robust counterterrorism effort to interdict future attacks and dismantle ISIS’s cells and networks. Anyone who takes up ISIS’s violent ideology and murders innocent people in its name — regardless of the reason — must be dealt with.
But the group’s viral appeal also suggests that these attacks will be part of our reality, here in Paris and Europe and beyond, for the near future. Like all viral epidemics, ISIS’s ideological spread will peak and then fade, and the speed of this process will be directly related to its virulence. In the meantime, we must remember that the group’s appeal is as much irrational as ideological, and that like all clickbait, it will eventually lose its novelty and, with it, its ability to attract an audience.