I think it is important to focus a bit not so much on the specifics of today, but rather on the larger phenomenon within which it fits. I’ve mentioned in comments to other posts that I’m working my way through a research project on the process of radicalization, specifically for those that self radicalize into terrorism. Specifically I’m trying to lay out a process rooted within existing empirical theory rooted in what we’ve been observing over the past couple of years with the anti-police incidents in Baton Rouge and Dallas; the Munich attack; the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando; the Nice truck attack; the Brussells airport and metro attacks; the San Bernadino attack; the Colorado Springs attack; the Paris/Saint Michael’s attack; the Bundy meshugas; the Charleston shooting; etc. While I won’t be ready to start doing my drafting until next week, it seems that what I’ve got percolating is, I think, pertinent to the larger dynamic that has everyone concerned today.
Hashtag Radicalization and Terrorism
Hashtag radicalization refers to the process that leads to terrorism, as well as acts of mass violence, that may not have a specific political objective, undertaken as a result of what is learned through the 24/7 news and social media. In this way it is a variant of G2Geek’s stochastic terrorism:
… the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.
What G2Geek posited is really a definition of radicalization – a preliminary delineation of the general result of what happens when there is significant, mass coverage in the news and social media of messages promoting extremism, terrorism, and violence. Whether he knew it or not, G2Geek’s offering was rooted in and built on those of other scholars into how mass hate and mass communication, and the changes to it with the advent of wireless and the Internet, drives terrorism and mass violence. Where hashtag radicalization goes farther than the original and insightful definition put forward by G2Geek is that hashtag radicalization follows a specific social behavioral pathway of radicalization.
Tom Nichols of the Naval War College has also begun to address this question with his exploratory article on Lost Boys back in July. Nichols posits that the combination of young men that can’t seem to get their lives to take off, the disappointments and discontents of that failure, and the ready access to 24/7 mass social media has created a large pool of lost boys that are now lashing out. Their actions, whether it is ranting and raving on social media in the attempt to intimidate and threaten, egging others on to take action, or taking action themselves is the result of their failure to achieve. What Nichols is describing here is general strain. Agnew has theorized that the modern form of anomie – societal disconnection – is general strain. General strain occurs when one fulfills all the requirements to achieve a valued goal, but either has the reward withheld or receives a negative/noxious reward (punishment) instead. There are three responses to experiencing strain: 1) devaluing the strain, by devaluing the withheld reward, 2) internalization of the strain leading to self destructive behavior, or 3) externalization of the strain leading to externally oriented destructive behavior. Nichols lost boys fit into the third response. They externalize their disconnection and disaffection and engage in externally directed deviance, crime, delinquency, and/or terrorism.
But not all of Nichols lost boys are actually boys. Robert Dear is 57. Major Nidal Hasan is in his 40s. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel is 31. The common denominator for all of these men, as well as for Dylann Roof, Micah Xavier Johnson, Rizwan Sayeed Farook, and others from even farther back in time such as Timothy McVeigh, Eric Robert Rudolph, Shelley Shannon (a woman), and Ted Kaczynski, is the need to alleviate their strain. Regardless of the source of the strain and regardless of whether their grievances are objective, subjective, or a combination of the two. The real question is how does one go from being socially** strained to externally directing one’s response to their strain. The answer, I think, is hashtag radicalization and terrorism. And this type of radicalization and terrorism has an empirically definable pathway.
In the 195os Sykes and Matza put forth a variant of social learning theory called neutralization and drift. Their intention was to clarify the social behavioral pathway that leads to delinquency, deviance, and crime. Sykes and Matza theorized that delinquency, deviancy, and crime are based on justifications that are used to rationalize behavior. And they called these justifications the techniques of neutralization, which allow one to drift into crime, deviance, and delinquency. Or in the cases we’re interested in extremism, terrorism, and/or mass violence. They are divided into five types of neutralization: 1) denial of responsibility; 2) denial of injury; 3) denial of victim; 4) condemnation of the condemners; and the 5) appeal to higher loyalties. The first three justifications all deal with denial. They allow the offender to rationalize his behavior as outside of his control. He or she is not really hurting anyone. And even if someone is hurt they may have deserved it. The fourth justification allows the offender to invert the knowledge of her wrongdoing back upon those criticizing it by asserting that the condemners are hypocrites, do equally bad things, or are out to get her. Finally, the fifth rationalization allows for the justification of behavior on the basis of loyalty to one’s group rather than one’s society.
Drawing justifications for one’s externally directed destructive behavior from what one sees, hears, and/or reads from our 24/7 news and social media environment, provides the impetus for individuals with no group affiliations to lash out – often violently. It also allows extremist, radical, and/or terrorist groups to leverage news reporting, their own and other’s social media platforms and messaging to reach strained individuals and provide them with the justifications for taking violent actions. This is hashtag radicalization and terrorism.
For a group like the Islamic State hashtag terrorism is part of their PSYOPS strategy. DAESH doesn’t have the ways and means to actually achieve their ends of defeating the US, its allies, and its partners. As a result it has to leverage terrorist acts to get the US, its allies, and its partners to overreact and provide it those means and ends – clamping down on civil liberties; targeting Muslim Americans, Anglo-Muslims, French Muslims, etc; and engaging in an actual ground war in Syria against the Islamic State, which would fulfill the Dabiq Prophecy.
The extremist anti-abortion movement, specifically the Army of God, that set the theological/doctrinal conditions for the radicalization of Dear, Shannon, Rudolph, and others is similar to the Islamic State. They do not have the ways and means to achieve their ends – the criminalization of all abortion in the United States, the legal recognition that life begins at conception, and that the developing fetus in utero is a fully articulated human from the moment of conception with all the rights and protections as any other person. In order to try to scare Americans into capitulating, it needs subjective and objective adherents to the Army of God’s theology and doctrine to engage in terrorism against abortion providers.
The process for radicalizing these adherents into actors, whether by the Army of God, the Islamic State, other groups, or specific elites and/or notables, is hashtag radicalization. If you’re a Muslim American or French or English or German Muslim, etc DAESH is trying to reach you by telling you that non-Muslim Americans, French, English, Germans, etc don’t want you in the US or their states (condemn the condemners). They want you gone, so you have to strike first (denial of victim). True Islam, adopting the doctrine of radical unity of the deity (tawheed), demands that the true Muslim (muwaheedun) strike at the apostates and the unbelievers (appeal to higher loyalties). The Army of God’s doctrinal messaging is similar. Abortion providers are murderers (condemn the condemners). Stopping them at all costs is what God wants (appeal to higher loyalties and denial of victim).
Even the mass violence that we’re seeing that doesn’t seem to be rooted in a specific extremist or radical doctrine has these characteristics. For instance, the Munich shooter was fascinated with mass shootings in the US and despite being a first generation German of Iranian descent, he had internalized the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the German and European extreme and nationalistic right, and admired Hitler and Anders Breivik. Here too we have strain – the son of immigrants that hates immigrants. And we have the denial of victim as he believed that immigrants were a blight on Germany and needed to be forced out. This is not unlike the justifications (neutralizations) presented by Dylann Roof for the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. “You rape our women, you are taking over our country, and you have to go“. Here too we have the denial of victim and the appeal to a higher authority.
What is so dangerous about today’s statements on the campaign trail, whether they were an intentional coded appeal to violence, an unintentional riff that was supposed to refer to the power of a block of single issue voters flexing their power at the ballot box, or a poorly phrased attempt at being funny is not what Trump actually meant. Rather it is that those who are already primed to (inaccurately) believe that Secretary Clinton has gotten away with several murders, has escaped responsibility for the deaths of US personnel, been allowed to evade criminal responsibility time and time again, and is rigging the general election to steal it from Trump and the real Americans that are backing him will hear what they want to hear in the message. And what they want to hear is an appeal to a higher authority. In this case a historically inaccurate understanding of the 2nd Amendment, specifically the meaning and application of the militia clause. They are already condemning Secretary Clinton and denying that she would be a victim, almost always based on inaccurate beliefs perpetrated by a too credulous and antagonistic news media. All that’s needed is that final neutralizing justification to allow the drift into extremist action all done in defense of the US Constitution (appeal to higher authority).
* Hashtag radicalization and terrorism is a variation on a phrase – hashtag terrorism – that Mnemosyne recommended in the comments to one of my posts on terrorism.
** Social here is doing a lot of work. It’s standing in for social, political, economic, religious, and/or ideological.