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One is a militant group that ascribes to religious fundamentalism, has been responsible for terrorist attacks, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and shocked the world with its gruesome televised executions.
The other is a sprawling U.S.-based movement of Hawaiian-shirt clad, AR-15-toting extremists who long for a violent uprising against the government.
On the face of things, ISIS and the Boogaloo Bois don’t really have much in common at all.
But researchers at George Washington University say they’ve identified one similarity between the two movements, and it has something to do with a mathematical equation.
Patterns of early online support for the Boogaloo movement, which has been linked to several violent incidents in the U.S. in the last year, mirrored the online behavior of early supporters of ISIS, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports this week.
“We show that the early dynamics of these two online movements follow the same mathematical order despite their stark ideological, geographical, and cultural differences,” the study’s authors wrote.
Researchers looked at how Boogaloo groups on Facebook grew between late 2019 and April 2020, and compared them to how ISIS groups on a Russian social media platform called VK grew in 2015. The growth curves are almost identical.
Researchers said they embarked on the project because they felt like social media platforms to show that disrupting an extremist group at an early stage of development online may be able to crush it before it gets too big.
“Despite the sociological and ideological differences in these groups, they share a similar collective chemistry in terms of how communities grow,” said Yonatan Lupu, one of the co-authors of the paper, and an associate professor of political science at George Washington. “This knowledge is key to identifying how to slow them down or even prevent them from forming in the first place."
Researchers also noted that both groups grew quickly, and are often extremely adaptable in the face of social media crackdowns.
The Boogaloo movement, for example, operated in plain sight on Facebook for months in early 2020. It started to get attention when adherents of the movement started showing up heavily armed to protests and wearing colorful shirts. After so-called Boogaloo Bois were linked to a string of violent incidents, mainstream social media platforms started removing pages that had any reference of “Boogaloo” or ``Boog.” But at that point, the movement was big enough that it was resilient in the face of crackdowns, adopting new code languages and nicknames as a way to evade social media restrictions.
Researchers said mass shutdowns of online groups can sometimes have an adverse effect, as it amplifies grievances and potentially energizes extremists.
They think that their mathematical theory shows that if social media platforms intervened by “nudging the collective chemistry” of online movements in their early stages, they would impact the trajectory of how the groups continue to grow.
“Our results represent a step toward an eventual system-level understanding of the emergence of extremist movements,” the study concluded. “We have given evidence that the early dynamics of these two online movements follow the same mathematical order despite their stark ideological, geographical, and cultural differences.