Does social media cause radicalization?

On the topic of brainwashing and terrorism, the jury is still out, David Tabachnick writes.

By: /
January 5, 2016
A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
David Tabachnick

Professor of Political Science at Nipissing University

The San Bernardino massacre, which left 14 dead in California on Dec. 2 after a seemingly normal husband and wife went on a shooting spree, has prompted yet another round of alarm about the upsurge of radicalized citizens, somehow convinced to turn to terrorism by online jihadist propaganda. 

Hillary Clinton, for example, explained, “If you look at the story about this woman, and maybe the man too, who got radicalized, self-radicalized, we’re going to need help from Facebook, and from YouTube and from Twitter.” The usually contradictory Donald Trump spoke along the same lines, putting it even more succinctly: “We came up with the Internet, but they’re using it better than we do,” he said. “They’re brainwashing these kids.”

On the face of it, it is hard to believe that reading Facebook posts, tweets or watching videos online, no matter how gory, can somehow transform someone into a homicidal extremist bent on destroying the West.

Yet, the authors of ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, a study released last month by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, seem to conclude something along these lines. “Social media plays a crucial role in the radicalization and, at times, mobilization of U.S.-based ISIS sympathizers,” they warn. “Some members of this online echo chamber eventually make the leap from keyboard warriors to actual militancy.”

But not everyone agrees. Jason Hart, a British social anthropologist, argues that terms such as brainwashing and radicalization are “weasel words” that excuse what are rational choices and severely limit our ability to understand why people come to support groups like the Islamic State. Simon Cottee argues the same in his cutting essay,  “The Zoolander Theory of Terrorism,” published in The Atlantic. The idea that people can be so easily brainwashed to commit violent and criminal acts, as if they were imbeciles like the lead character played by Ben Stiller in the 2001 comedy that inspires the essay’s title, is to miss the point that terrorists “are not only not crazy, but also not stupid.” 

This debate about brainwashing by internet has an interesting historical parallel. After the Korean War, there was widespread concern that American POWs had been brainwashed by their captors, converting them to embrace communism. A 1954 Associated Press article written under the headline, “Red Brainwashing Will Eventually Break Even the Strongest” captures the mood of the time well. Like now, the public was told that these soldiers had “signed a pact with the Devil,” their will destroyed and their reason eroded.

This panic later became the basis of the popular suspense movie The Manchurian Candidate. Meanwhile, studies soon showed that this sort of total conversion almost never occurred. Albert Biderman, a psychologist charged with reviewing the security risks of returning Air Force prisoners of war, concluded that concerns about brainwashing had more to do with American fear of communism than with actually events. Even under conditions of torture and depravation, very few prisoners fell prey to these efforts and those that did soon came out of it upon their release.

Of course, there are other studies of cults and totalitarian dictatorships that show brainwashing through mass propaganda can work and have long-term effects. But, it is simply too easy, if not irresponsible and dangerous, to accept that the reason why men and women, young and old, are joining or pledging allegiance to ISIS is because of some sort of online trickery or that drafting Facebook and Twitter is a smart strategy to fight terrorism.

In reality, terrorism has little to do with brainwashing. Instead, it seems to describe a set of rational, if not also condemnable and criminal, choices.