In the Struggle Against Extremism, Social Media Is the Message

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A diverse, public-private sector effort must be organized to counter extremisms message, write David N. Lawrence and his co-authors in this opinion piece.

“The medium is the message.”

A half century ago, Marshall McLuhan delivered his profoundly radical conclusion about the effects of electronic communications and technology in the 20th century. It has since proven to be one of the prescient truths about human activity and the velocity of change.

As we seek to counter the threats of extremism at home and abroad, McLuhan’s insight has more relevance than ever. The digital world has clearly shown that more than governmental authority and military force are needed to ensure global security. Twitter  Officials here and abroad acknowledge that they have barely made a dent in the larger, lengthy campaign to defeat the ideologies that animate extremism. On a long-term basis, a diverse private-public sector effort must be organized to counter extremism’s message.

While technological advances in the medium of communications have heralded enormous social benefits, the reach and ubiquity of new messaging tools have also made it easier for the darker expressions of human behavior. Social media tools have become the front line for inspiring and funding extremism. Just ask those who head to Syria, wield an axe, or the boy in a remote Cambodian village who knows the name of the American preacher who wanted to burn the Quran.

Extremists recognize that increasing proportions of the world’s population —particularly the young — rely upon social media to remain informed and connected. It is a highly influential market, where imagery, emotion and psychology often triumph over reason.

The challenge to public safety in the digital world is that social media has no center. Individuals control the creation and distribution of content from anywhere in the world. Amid the proliferation of social media, people coalesce around narrower and narrower affinities. Ominously,the more extreme the sensibility of the author within the affinity, the more attention the author receives. In this way, social media provides both an organizing principle and resilient structure to extreme behavior. It often responds as a hydra. Chop off one head; it grows two more.

“The digital world has clearly shown that more than governmental authority and military force are needed to ensure global security.”

In a marketplace of ideas not turned by boots or bombs —and where, in fact, our military responses are digitally “uploaded”to incite outrage —new strategies, narrators and brands are needed to counter the allure of extremism. In this regard, certain lessons of the past are still relevant.

Lessons from the Past

In 1957, James Reston of The New York Times recounted a cautionary parable about the correlation between our emerging technologies and extreme threats:

A health director . . . reported this week that a small mouse, which presumably had been watching television, attacked a little girl and her full-grown cat. . . . Both mouse and cat survived, and the incident is recorded here as a reminder that things seem to be changing.

McLuhan would cite Reston’s account in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) to offer his view about a future world that has since arrived in full.Well before today’s radicalized movements, McLuhan recognized that “the mysterious need of crowds to grow and to reach out”could be understood only through the “technologies that extend the power of touch and the grasp of the hand.”The medium —not its content —shapes and controls “the scale and form of human association and action,”and has the power to alter society.

For McLuhan, the lesson from a televised newscast about a heinous act was less about the story itself than in the change in public attitude on crime caused by a medium that carried news to dinner-time tables. McLuhan recognized that technology’s ability to extend human reach could be radical, pervasive and decentralized. Tellingly, he observed: “War is never anything less than accelerated technological change.”

Today, as many have noted, technology has compressed us into a global village and decentralized the means of influence. Natural and man-made events in one corner of the world alter events in other corners — instantly and profoundly. The speed and bandwidths of the mediums through which ideas travel can overwhelm our capacities to predict, understand and manage.

Recently, the world was caught off-guard by the rise, influence and tactics of extremist movements, such as the militant group calling itself the Islamic State and the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram. We failed to fully appreciate the implications and unintended consequences of advances in technology that we mistook as only enhancing communications, commerce and advertising.

Our reality is now the joining of the unforeseen, unpredictable and unimaginable. Seemingly beneficial technologies and social mediums have become “dual use”weapons that provide the scale and reach to cause global shifts in values, norms and activities that directly affect peace and security. As Britain’s security chief, Robert Hannigan, recently noted about the corporations that connect us: “However much they may dislike it, they have become the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us.”

“On the digital battleground, there is no center of gravity. There is no here, there or elsewhere.”

Moving Past the Daily Juice

If we are to find the answers to how and why extremism attracts —and how best to respond —we must move past the distracting “juice”of daily events to grasp the messages of our media. As McLuhan reminded us, only by knowing the medium’s messages can we move ahead to deflect the resulting force.

Our digital media offer a simple opening message about their power to disrupt. Never before have so few possessed so many means, to scale so far, and to influence so many, with so little expense or containment.

This war is altogether different. On the digital battleground, there is no center of gravity. There is no here, there or elsewhere. Ideas, imagery and emotions are the exchangeable currency. Values rise and fall on a competitive basis — without regard to military might or the survival of any group or individual.

Extremisms message sells. It is ideological and charismatic. To counter its influence, we must understand what extremists believe, their values, what motivates them — and what constitutes the rebuttal. We must understand the “breeding grounds for terrorism”and the human dynamics that explain why some succumb and others do not.

Extremists know their audience. They recruit and motivate within targeted demographics that they understand. Their messaging especially bonds with the young and emotionally vulnerable — those in transition, searching for identity, meaning and purpose. There is online content about injustice — and what individuals should do — as well as like-minded communities for support, directions and promised rewards.

Their marketing apparatus is sophisticated and global. Their marketing techniques come from Madison Avenue’s playbook. In the case of the Islamic State, they have a supra-national brand (caliphate), iconography (a black flag), brand promise (restored glory) and institutional legitimacy (a balance-sheet, press and annual report). They influence with emotional speech, text, imagery and music. Their cause is claimed to be righteous. Their values are supposedly sacred. Their leaders position themselves as prophet-like, promising a better world. Supporters can “friend”, “follow”and “link”. Scripture, history and current events define the struggle in timeless fashion — a choice between good and evil.

Extremism now has an established business model. Many groups are organized like multi-national corporations, with semi-autonomous divisions having their own balance sheets and responsibilities for day-to-day operations. Digital platforms guide strategies. Targets and methods are downloadable. Results are closely tracked. Innovation is encouraged. Significantly, attacks are authorized— wherever, whenever and by whatever means available.

Playing defense in the digital world is hard. Social media has weighted the odds even more in extremists’favor. The cost is low and the impact is high to organize an attack. Extremists recognize that confidence in institutions and laws are hard-won over time —yet easily diminished within single events. When it comes to national security, there is an operative axiom. Authorities must be successful 100% of the time. Terrorism needs to succeed only once.

The threats are now increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Today’s threats are more difficult to detect than the larger, long-term conspiracies of the past. The digital reach of extremism’s messaging ensures that there is no longer a “typical profile”of violent actors. Whether recruited into a group —or as a “lone wolf”, “self-inspired”or “traveler”agent —extremism is an equal opportunity employer. Recruits now come from all nations, ethnic groups, ages, genders and walks of life. As FBI Director, James Comey, recently admitted: “Finding a typical person, a physical being in which that troubled mind sits, is actually something that’s eluded us.”

Our military experts acknowledge that combat is not enough. We need to better communicate our own alluring values. As former Admiral James Stavridis (now dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy) has noted: “Sometimes people say that we are in a war of ideas. That is not quite right. We are in a marketplace of ideas. We have got good ideas— democracy, freedom, liberty, freedom of speech, gender equality, racial equality. We have to move that in the long term.”We also have to compete with economic conditions that improve people’s lives.

Through no failure of government, additional expertise and resources are needed to know our media and compete with extremism’s messages. No enterprise can go it alone. To cite the principle (Joy’s Law) attributed to computer scientist and founder of Sun Microsystems, William Joy, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”We should try to try to reach these people. And here is a modest proposal: We should link McLuhan’s insight to Joy’s Law.

A Broad Collaboration

Free societies have always relied upon their citizenry for their defense. We need a broad private-public sector collaboration of those who understand our media and how to counter the messages of extremism. Executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter recently met with leading officials to discuss “ways of building trust and more transparency.”This is an excellent start, but we believe an even broader coalition of actual producers is required to translate influence into action.

“We should ‘know’ the narratives of extremists (consumers), and continuously gain insights …. No source should be overlooked.”

Resources need to be drawn from across the private, public, academic and NGO communities. This would include groups that understand extremism, as well as experts in communications and marketing that launch successful brands, products, social networks and political campaigns. Beyond governmental input, this effort should involve content creators, filmmakers, multimedia producers, social marketers, communications specialists, technologists, “big data”analysts, behavioral experts, anthropologists, sociologists, religious and community leaders, scholars, artists, musicians, video game creators and ”ordinary”citizens.

We should “know”the narratives of extremists (consumers), and continuously gain insights from focus groups and pollsters. No source should be overlooked. Video game designers, for example, have established multi-generational global communities based on real-world phenomena like emotional loss, existential doubt and the simple quest for beauty. The effort should recognize cultural and other differences within our diverse audiences. The messengers (spokespersons) should be as important as any message.

Because authenticity matters, the initiative cannot be government owned. This will not be easy. Mistakes will be made. But analogous commercial efforts successfully occur daily throughout the world. Funding would cost pennies on military dollars—with no loss of life. We will have nothing to lose, except darkness and shadows.

About the Co-authors:

David N. Lawrence is the founder and chief collaborative officer of the Risk Assistance Network+Exchange (RANE), and a former associate general counsel and managing director at Goldman Sachs. Previously, he served in various senior positions with the United States Attorney’s Office, S.D.N.Y. Curtis Houglandis the CEO of Attentionusa.com, a global social media and marketing agency. Stephen Labaton is president of the global communications firm Finsbury, and a former senior writer for The New York Times. Frances Townsend is executive vice president of MacAndrews & Forbes and was homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush. Farah Pandith is a senior fellow at Harvard University and was the first U.S. State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Juan Zarate is the author of Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare and was the former deputy national security advisor and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing. John Squires is a senior partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie, specializing in intellectual property and technology law and served as chief IP counsel for Goldman Sachs. Matthew Lawrence is a legal and IP researcher at Perkins Coie. The authors also acknowledge the contributions of Tim Murphy, Vice President of MacAndrews & Forbes, former Deputy Director of the FBI and Adam Robinson, CEO of Robinson Global Strategies. The views expressed by the authors are entirely their own and not of any organizations in which they are, or have been, involved.

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