As Charlie Winter noted recently at War on the Rocks, the Islamic State’s robust social media apparatus has been propagating a remarkably effective, multi-faceted communications strategy that incorporates narratives of statehood, military success, and religious legitimacy. The Islamic State’s success in using social media to disseminateits extremist ideas and mobilize tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the caliphate has raised many questions about the relative efficacy of online radicalization and recruitment. Can social networking sites replace face-to-face communications in fostering the group dynamic that is so important to spurring people to engage in terrorist acts? How do online group dynamics differ from those of face-to-face networks? Does social media accelerate the process of radicalization, so that individuals may be ready to illegally support violent causes more quickly after exposure to extremist ideas than in the past? It is vital that we seek to understand these questions in order to counter the Islamic State’s social media outreach and more effectively respond to other groups that seek to emulate its successes.
Public discussion and debate about these issues has tended to overlook the rich body of research produced by psychologists, sociologists, and communication scholars. Academics have been studying the impact of online or “computer-mediated” communication (CMC) on human behavior since the 1960s, and the literature on the subject, especially three concepts from the field of social psychology — identity demarginalization, group polarization, and the social identity model of de-individuation effects — can do much to inform our exploration of online radicalization.
Identity Demarginalization and Group Polarization: Validating Fringe Identities
Identity demarginalization theory, as articulated by Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh in a 1998 study, explores why some social groups are more drawn to online communication than others. McKenna and Bargh found that individuals with “concealable and culturally devalued identities” were more likely to participate in and value online communities than individuals with mainstream identities. Specifically, their study found that people who posted in online forums dedicated to concealable identities such as homosexuality or drug usage valued the feedback and opinions of other group members more strongly than did members of forums focused on marginalized identities that are easier to perceive, such as obesity and stuttering. “For the first time,” the authors wrote, an individual exploring his or her marginalized identity in an online environment “can reap the benefits of joining a group of similar others: feeling less isolated and different, disclosing a long secret part of oneself, sharing one’s own experiences and learning from those of others, and gaining emotional and motivational support.”
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks