Network extremists and the power of algorithms

Dr. Mansour Al-Shammari
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In our usual approach to the phenomenon of extremism, we have become accustomed to seeing it as an ideological deviation or extremism, studying its stages, particularities and root causes from this viewpoint. But recently, we have been faced with a new strand of extremism completely separate from this old ideological background. Rather, it is completely unconnected with all the pretextual arsenal to which the traditional extremist has become accustomed.

Read also: The instrumentalization of political Islam by the region’s two colonial projects

Extremism - and this strand of it - is no longer the product of a long ideological indoctrination, as we have come to know from the traditional methods of extremist groups. Previously, these groups would devote much energy to brainwashing and indoctrination through a complete curriculum that gradually wins over followers, through lessons, courses and messaging arranged in a way that develops the militant mindset in an increasing order. From the ritualistic extremism associated with worship, to radicalism with violent tendencies, through the destruction of the social relations of the followers in order to isolate them away from their social groups. Affiliation with the organization comes to replace both family and homeland. All of this used to take time, effort and money, and necessarily requires realistic communication between the agents in charge of recruitment and their targets, based on time-tested brainwashing techniques.

On the other hand, extremism in its new form, as demonstrated by recent terrorist events, and which we encounter on all social media platforms, no longer requires such a constructive process in order to succeed in producing extremists with no clear ideological background, nor any official link to an organization. Rather, they suddenly appear on the public scene without introduction or clear indications that would allow the relevant agencies to anticipate their plans, or their families to know what they are up to. There are no previous crimes, nor old or current extremist affiliations, such that we can say they are individuals without any legal or social vulnerabilities, thus bypassing normal avenues of follow-up and control. This is what makes them so dangerous, which we will address further.

On the surface, this new model of extremists explains at the same time their ideological and organizational insignificance, as well as their tremendous ability to surprise agencies working on anti-extremism and anti-terrorism. We could call them “network extremists.” With the old type, the rupture with the immediate social context was apparent through many cultural signs, whether on the level of appearance, the lexicon in forming their perceptions and demands, or their view of the universe, their concept of salvation, and the doctrine of life and death, which was made easy for experts to detect, control and eventually dismantle.

In contrast, we find the current network extremist intertwined and interacting with the surrounding social fabric, not with the logic of piety, which is usually used - in my opinion - outside its context within Western interpretations of extremism, given that the significance of this concept requires conventionally that we consider this extremist to have reached a very advanced degree of intellectual formation, which has made him aware of secrets that are not available to the general public. Therefore, he was used to hiding his exceptional convictions and knowledge, waiting for a decisive moment, the timing of which he himself would not determine, but rather would be selected by his organizational leaders. Unlike the network extremist who continues his usual interaction with regular affiliations and his social surroundings, seamlessly without any real intention to cause a radical rupture with these surroundings. Until one day out of the blue, he makes a suicidal leap in the chasm of complete separation from his behavioral references, to carry out a terrorist act. The reaction of his family and friends often take the form of absolute denial accompanied by initial shock and disbelief, before the evidence of concrete facts compel them to acknowledge the bitter truth, which turns a friendly spouse, a nice friend, a righteous son, or a good neighbor into a criminal radically disavowing his national identity and all human values.

German special police gather near the El-Irschad (Al-Iraschad e.V.) center in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2020, after Germany has banned Iran-backed Hezbollah on its soil and designated it a terrorist organization. (Reuters)
German special police gather near the El-Irschad (Al-Iraschad e.V.) center in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2020, after Germany has banned Iran-backed Hezbollah on its soil and designated it a terrorist organization. (Reuters)

Therefore, the pressing question now is the extent to which this sudden change in the identity of the network extremist can be explained, and the ability to search for the new factors that contribute to his molding online, which are all difficult questions to answer by relying on the traditional concepts of extremism.

The key to the new extremist personality dives into the algorithms that organize the connected digital world in general according to their relationships, and which have become able to control and calculate the journeys of internet users from around the whole world. These algorithms use the mass of big data, reached a magnitude that exceeds what the human mind can comprehend. If we bring to mind the growing volume of this data, this will give us an idea of the size of the contents in which today's human mind is drowning in its daily use search engines, following and interacting on social networks, while receiving in real time a huge amount of information from all sides.

This digital material is constantly subject to algorithms that arrange it either according to the number of website visitors using Google Analytics, or through its hierarchical scheduling based on analysis of internal links of content and the network of relationships that they establish between them, which gives a greater view of certain materials over others in the form of PageRank. Or, finally, through digital tracking using artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to predict the behavior of online users. All this indicates that every use of digital material on the network is a use directed in one way or another by algorithms, so it can be said that the network extremist, while he's surfing the web while he is practicing, is exposed to materials that include militant discourse, does not do so depending on his complete personal choices, but rather based on different algorithms that use clickbait traps. Therefore, even without meaning to, he is involved from an unknown point of view in an unorganized digital group in the first place, with shared interests and following the same type of material, and from there they interconnect and interact with each other around materials that even lightly contain extremist sensitivities.

This continuous interaction with content that grows day after day through the internal link network, constitutes what can be described as the online profile of an individual or group, and the mechanism on which this is based does not differ from other fields, so what directs interest in following a sports team, a music band, or a commercial product, is similar to what contributes to creating the extremist environment associated with certain religious factions. It is based on exposure to digital material according to the workings of hidden algorithms and their ability to elicit an emotional response that ensures the extremist continues to follow and share the material in question. This in turn ensures its spread in an exponential manner, and thus when the network extremist acts according with his religious or ideological inclinations, and interacts with digital content and shares it with other internet user, then the algorithms serve another requirement which is to create foci of network interest. This then allows them to better market and tailor advertising, which makes the digital community of followers subject to a marketing system that makes extremism itself ultimately a consumer practice subject to the system of supply and demand. To the extent that digital consumption processes have become directed to new marketing forms that make a person buy what they don't need, sometimes leading to partial or complete bankruptcy, the digital processes have also become able, in a similar way, to create an online “jihadist,” who is guided and directed and is unaware of being drawn into violent operations disguised as fleeting consumer whim. Rather he has fallen into this trap through digital interaction that is automatically controlled through algorithms. And here we realize why parties, groups and organizations are ready to expend vast amounts to promote and sustain ideological content on social networks.

These social communication platforms have also paid attention to this disturbing accidental problem in their marketing algorithms and have come under criticism to take tighter precautionary and control measures against the misuse of their networks. However, this does not seem enough to prevent the formation of these network entities that suddenly found their default identity shifting in a troubling way that they did not anticipate. With the first few clicks on links to extremist digital material, these control procedures become more difficult when it comes to Arabic language content, which is a challenge that remains to be addressed.

The viral spread of such content driven by software and algorithms that, as a result of automation, behave almost independently from human intervention, is something that should push us to take responsibility for what happens on the net. This includes companies that need an ethical code that imposes the humanizing of its algorithms, as well as monitors of extremist tendencies who must work to better understand the digital dynamic field that produces this new type of extremists.

It seems that confronting the network extremist, in my opinion, requires action at the ideological and digital level at the same time, in addition to the strategic dimension, which calls for:

- Intensifying efforts to counter the ideological references that feed digital material used by extremist discourse in general, by preventing it, refuting it, and replacing it with counter material that gives strong anti-extremism arguments.

- Creating algorithms that allow the circulation of anti-extremist material more efficiently, so that they can go viral and decrease views and popularity of extremist material.

- At the local and regional level, creating a green technology zone, granting authority to filter web content, and thinking of alternatives.

Here, we stress the importance of concerting all efforts to eradicate the growth of the causes of the generation of network extremists, and work to disrupt their creation within digital platforms before they turn into individuals that carry out violent operations on the ground. We must to start automated mobilization again, within the framework of a cluster movement, that transforms, through its network mobilization effect, network followers into functional dependents, through which organizations achieve their operational goals, and then in turn make it again a major network recruitment factor, and so forth.

Our ability to break this network cycle in the field of extremism and to disable its effectiveness depends on our ability to develop methodologies and mentalities in the field of counter extremism, the strengthening of algorithms that regulate the network domain, and the modern and advanced qualification of individuals who are able to understand ideologies and their development. It is a battle in which we face distortions of thought and the crisis of technologies, especially as we are facing a new generation of communication speed that will open new horizons for human communication, and this is what makes it everyone's battle.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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