An Expert Explains How Social Media Can Lead to the 'Self-Radicalisation' of Terrorists

The internet has allowed like-minded people to find each other, and sometimes this has terrible, far-reaching consequences.

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Dec 8 2015, 6:00am

Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook entering the United States as an engaged couple in 2014. Photo via ABC News

On Friday, it was revealed that Tashfeen Malik, the 29-year-old suspect at the center of last week's massacre in San Bernardino, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook just before the mass shooting that killed 14 and injured 21. The FBI promptly indicated it would be probing the attack as an act of terrorism, and agents are culling data from electronic devices obtained during a search of the home Malik shared with her husband and fellow alleged shooter, Syed Farook.

It's still unclear whether Malik and Farook were directed by the sprawling terrorist organization, or else "self-radicalized," which might be even more terrifying. The Islamic State seemed to embrace the duo as "supporters" or "soldiers" over the weekend, but teasing out just how closely affiliated the couple were with the group is tricky. What we do know is that social media is an effective recruitment tool for the Islamic State, both in the United States and abroad. It's also how much of the news of tragedies—be they terrorist attacks in a Paris club, or a mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood—first make their way to the public sphere, amplifying our horror, sadness, and differences of opinion in real time.

Michael A. Stefanone is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo's department of communication, and his background is in the social psychology of technology use and strategic behavior. In the past, his work has been funded by the Air Force and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). He's uniquely qualified to speak to the vital role social media has come to play in these events—before, during, and after the fact. We asked him about the psychology at work when someone is "self-radicalized," if government can—as Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton suggested over the weekend—work with social media to help tamp down terrorism, and the new role women might begin playing in attacks traditionally carried out by men.

VICE: Could you tell me a bit about how people are radicalized through social media?
Michael A. Stefanone: The ultimate utility of social media is to connect like-minded individuals. We see this everywhere, and this shouldn't be surprising, because connecting with similar others has always been a human motivation. Today, however, technology enables us to connect globally. Now that we can connect globally, there is also greater opportunity to connect with others who are increasingly extreme in their attitudes and beliefs.

The Internet, and specifically social media, makes it so easy to connect with people that share similar ideologies. ISIS has a unique recruitment style; that is, very personal attention over a very long period of time. In many instances, when people are persuaded or pushed into action, it is the result of a long, effortful recruitment process. I think that is very unique when it comes to online recruitment. ISIS stands out in that regard.

Social media seems to be playing a growing role in terrorist attacks and mass shootings. How does it amplify alienation from society and make these tragedies more likely?
When one communicates online, and he or she is not present with the people they are communicating with, that polarization and shift in attitudes is even more amplified. That is when that self-radicalization really happens and can happen at a quicker speed. Let's say you are unhappy about a car you purchased and you find a Facebook group of people upset about the same car. This in-group identification comes into play and the psychology behind it ramps up your hatred and the strength of your hatred amplifies.

It is no different than what happens when people are physically in groups together—people do crazy things in groups. But over the internet you are anonymous and can find people with extreme attitudes and connect with them and then your attitudes can polarize quickly and amplify much faster. Your attitude becomes much stronger much faster online.

Social media enables loose, decentralized networks of people to come together, where no one person is in charge and there is no formal structure. That is just like the nature of these terrorist groups today. It allows like-minded individuals to communicate at absolutely no cost. Fifteen years ago I would have had to fly to Saudi Arabia. Social media creates access and allows you to broadcast these messages to people who maybe cannot afford to travel overseas. It gives access to this information, so more people can get this access.

"When individuals communicate online, and especially when they are anonymous, their communicative behavior can become more aggressive, and the attitudes they express can be more extreme."

What kinds of people are most vulnerable to being radicalized by extremist groups via social media?
If an extreme group such as ISIS is trying to persuade people to do something that very few people would do, it is about probability. Suddenly, social media increases the pool greatly. Social media and technology makes it easier to not only create, but broadcast, these persuasive messages. The people creating these messages and recruiting have a global audience at zero cost. Anybody with a phone or computer can access these messages. It doesn't matter what I am interested in, I can find information on it and still maintain a benign online presence and real life presence.

We do know that when individuals communicate online, and especially when they are anonymous, their communicative behavior can become more aggressive, and the attitudes they express can be more extreme. This is readily apparent in reader comments to online news articles. It is well known that online conversations like these tend not to be civil.

In part, this is because when we communicate online, and don't have to think about the immediate consequences of our conversations (like we do when we communicate face to face), it's easier to communicate more aggressively or take "riskier" positions on issues. When everyone in the conversation behaves this way, the result is polarization. Again, this is easily observable online and via social media. I see it in the comments in response to politically-motivated Facebook posts on my feed all the time.

The internet and social media cut the costs of finding and communicating with others. Social media also significantly increases the audience size for messages created by extremist groups (or, anyone else for that matter). So the likelihood that those messages will resonate with someone in that audience also increases. I'm not sure how effective social media is as a recruitment tool, but it certainly gets a lot of press coverage as an effective tool because the stories are often so sensational. The actual recruitment process is more likely a function of direct, personal communication over time.

The latest narrative around Friday's San Bernardino shooting is that Malik may have been the mastermind. Do you have any insight into how women get drawn into radical Islam?
Women typically don't have many of the freedoms afforded to men in their society, which is typically male-dominated. I think there is something to be said for the fact that their society is oppressive toward women and women haven't been asked to be a part of many things before. That jumps out to me. Someone that hasn't had a voice, hasn't been able to drive, has had to cover up, that may make them more susceptible when someone finally gives them attention and is trying to recruit them. ISIS is an opportunity for people who typically haven't had a voice—it makes them more susceptible.

Hilary Clinton is now urging social media companies to work more closely with government to share info to shut down terrorist groups. What would something like that look like, and is it even possible?
That is a classic government response, but frankly the government is poorly equipped to handle things that change quickly, and technology changes quickly. This is a human problem, not a technology problem. As the government tries to restrict venues that are being used today, new ways of doing this will pop up tomorrow. It is an endless cycle.

If there are hubs like Facebook and other media sites that become restricted or inefficient as recruitment tools, they will find something new. And the truth is, they are already using dark web and tools 99 percent of Americans don't even know about, so people aren't just posting to Facebook. This is all politically-motivated rhetoric. When governments get involved in technology, it doesn't traditionally go very well. Just look at the rollout of healthcare, which was a great idea, but governments move slowly and aren't equipped to do things like that.

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