Radicalization and Violent Extremism
What explains online radicalization and support for ISIS in the West? Over the past few years, thousands of individuals have radicalized by consuming extremist content online, many of whom eventually traveled overseas to n join the Islamic State. This study examines whether anti-Muslim hostility might drive pro-ISIS radicalization in Western Europe. Using new geo-referenced data on the online behavior of thousands of Islamic State sympathizers in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium, I study whether the intensity of anti-Muslim hostility at the local level is linked to pro-ISIS radicalization on Twitter. Results show that local-level measures of anti-Muslim animosity correlate significantly and substantively with indicators of online radicalization, including posting tweets sympathizing with ISIS, describing life in ISIS-controlled territories, and discussing foreign fighters. High-frequency data surrounding events that stir support for ISIS — terrorist attacks, propaganda releases, and anti-Muslim protests — show the same pattern.
Countering violent extremism (CVE) is becoming a popular strategy to combat terrorism. Unlike traditional counter-terror measures that focus on repression of militant groups, counter-extremism policies seek to engage civilian populations in ad- dressing factors that facilitate radicalization into terrorism. While CVE initiatives are widespread around the world, there is currently little rigorous research on their effectiveness. This study illustrates how innovations in social media research can shed light on this emerging research frontier by presenting an empirical analysis of a large counter-extremism program in the United States. Drawing on original geo-located Twitter data on thousands of Islamic State sympathizers in the United States, I find that counter-extremism activities led ISIS sympathizers to behave strategically online. Individuals located in proximity to CVE activities began self-censoring expressions of support for ISIS, altering their profile images on Twitter, and encouraging their followers to migrate to Telegram, an encrypted social media platform popular among the group’s supporters. These results shed light on previously unknown patterns linking offine counter-extremism interventions with online engagement with militant groups.
Propaganda and Radicalization in an Internet Age. With Barbara Walter and Gregoire Phillips. In progress.
Over the past decade, a large number of extremist and hate groups have turned to internet platforms to inspire mass violence. Currently, there is little reliable evidence on how such campaigns radicalize targeted audiences. This study illustrates an inexpensive, systematic, and scalable way for estimating the effect of online propaganda on the behavior of individuals on social media platforms. Our method utilizes several machine learning algorithms to detect recruitment messages in online propaganda, identify their dissemination on social media, and quantify how exposed users react. We apply this method to content produced by the Islamic State that was widely shared on Twitter between 2015 and 2016. We find that propaganda messages conveying the material, spiritual, and social benefits of joining ISIS were effective at increasing online support for the group, while content displaying brutal violence was ineffective at generating support across a wide range of videos. The study illustrates how powerful machine learning techniques can be applied to detect granular messages in online content, a method that can be replicated to study other information campaigns.
Far-Right Extremism: Engagement with Hate Speech on Gab. In Progress.
Violent extremist groups are increasingly using social media platforms to communicate, disseminate propaganda, and plan violent acts. As a result, social media companies have upped their efforts to take down extremist content and suspend accounts disseminating hate speech. A popular, but largely untested, argument is that suspension causes banned individuals to migrate to smaller, alternative platforms, where the risk of radicalization is higher. There is, however, very little systematic research on the online behavior of extremist sympathizers on the smaller platforms. This project sheds light on these questions by collecting and analyzing rich data from the Gab social network — an ‘alternative’ platform popular among white nationalists. Drawing on machine learning methods for analyzing textual and image data, the study systematically collects data from Gab, including user-level and post-level data; analyzes content shared on Gab to detect different types of hate speech; and examines how exposure to various types of hateful content affects the online behavior of exposed users.
The Causes and Consequences of Violent Conflict
Can war foster cooperation? With Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilová, Joseph Henrich, and Edward Miguel. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(3). [Paper] [Ungated] [Appendix] [Replication]
In the past decade, nearly 20 studies have found a strong, persistent pattern in surveys and behavioral experiments from over 40 countries: individual exposure to war violence tends to increase social cooperation at the local level, including community participation and prosocial behavior. Thus while war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. We discuss, synthesize and reanalyze the emerging body of evidence, and weigh alternative explanations. There is some indication that war violence especially enhances in-group or “parochial” norms and preferences, a finding that, if true, suggests that the rising social cohesion we document need not promote broader peace.
In the past few years the Western world has witnessed a rise in the popularity of right-wing political discourse promoting nationalistic and exclusionary worldviews. While in many countries such rhetoric has surfaced in mainstream politics only recently, in Israel, right-wing ideology has been popular for almost two decades. Explanations for this surge focus on Israeli citizens’ attitudinal change in the face of exposure to terrorism, but largely do not account for why such ideas remain popular over the long term, even after violence subsides. This study examines whether the long-lasting prominence of right-wing nationalistic politics in Israel is linked to the perpetuation of right-wing ideology in popular media. Analyzing the content of more than 70,000 published books, this study finds that content related to the political right has increased in Israeli books after periods of terrorism, a change that has become more pronounced over the years.
Contested Ground: Disentangling Material and Symbolic Attachment to Territory. With Guy Grossman and Devorah Manekin. Published in Political Science Research and Methods. [Paper] [Ungated] [Appendix] [Replication]
Territorial disputes are prone to conflict because of the value of territory to publics, whether due to its strategic and material worth, or to its intangible, symbolic value. Yet despite the implications of the distinction for both theory and policy, empirically disentangling the material from the symbolic has posed formidable methodological challenges. We propose a set of tools for assessing the nature of individual territorial attachment, drawing on a series of survey experiments in Israel. Using these tools, we find that a substantial segment of the Jewish population is attached to the disputed West Bank territory for intangible reasons, consisting not only of far-right voters but also of voters of moderate-right and centrist parties. This distribution considerably narrows the bargaining space of leaders regardless of coalitional configurations. Our empirical analysis thus illustrates how the distribution of territorial preferences in the domestic population can have powerful implications for conflict and its resolution.
Effective for Whom? Ethnic Identity and Nonviolent Resistance. with Devorah Manekin. Revise and Resubmist at American Political Science Review.
A growing empirical literature finds that nonviolence is more successful than violence in effecting political change. We suggest that a focus on this association is incomplete, because it obscures the impact of ethnic identity on campaign outcomes. Specifically, we argue that because of prevalent negative stereotypes associating minority ethnic groups with violence, such groups are perceived as more violent even when resisting nonviolently, reducing public sympathy, increasing support for repression, and hampering campaign success. We test this proposition using observational and experimental data. Results show that, cross-nationally, the effectiveness of nonviolence is significantly moderated by ethnicity, such that nonviolence increases success but only for dominant groups. Employing survey experiments in the U.S. and Israel, we find that nonviolent resistance by ethnic minorities is perceived as more violent and requiring more policing than nonviolent resistance by majorities. These findings highlight the importance of ethnic identity in shaping campaign outcomes, underscoring the obstacles that widespread biases pose to nonviolent mobilization.
Media and Politics
Media Ownership as Political Investment: The Case of Israel Hayom. With Guy Grossman and Yotam Margalit. Under Review. [Paper]
Can the ultra-rich shape electoral results by controlling media outlets that openly propagate their political interests? How consumers discount slanted media coverage is a question gaining urgency as a growing number of billionaires mix ownership of major media outlets with business interests and political agendas. We study this question in the context of Israel, where billionaire Sheldon Adelson launched in 2007 Israel Hayom, a right-leaning newspaper. Handed out for free, it soon became the most widely read newspaper nationally. Utilizing local media exposure data since the launch, our analysis indicates that the newspaper exerted significant electoral influence, primarily benefiting Netanyahu and his Likud party. This shift helped bring about a sea-change in the right’s dominance of national politics. Our results highlight the immense impact the ultra-rich can exert in shaping politics through media ownership.
Terrorism as a Stage for Far-Right Mobilization. Under Review. [Paper]
Research on the electoral success of far-right parties has traditionally focused on demand-side explanations such as voters’ grievances or supply-side accounts highlighting opportunities. So far, there has been little empirical research on contexts that facilitate the interaction of the two. This paper shows that terrorist attacks move both demand and supply in favor of right-wing populism, making aspects of its ideology resonate with the media and other drivers of the social conversation while simultaneously increasing public sympathy for far-right narratives. Using multiple sources of textual data from national newspapers and social media published before and after terrorist attacks in Europe, I show that (i) news media in countries targeted by terrorism cover more topics related to far-right ideology; (ii) far-right politicians talk more about immigration, security, and national identity in these time periods; and (iii) far-right messages become popular among the public in the month after terrorist acts.
Anarchy and Regulation in the Marketplace of Ideas: The Political Consequences of Media Freedom. With Jack Snyder. In progress.
Freedom of speech and the press are at the center of any democratic system. Especially in America, absolute free speech is believed to facilitate the discovery of truth through constructive public debate, regardless of the context. But as free speech has been expanding throughout the world on an unprecedented scale—largely thanks to rapid innovations in information and communication technologies—the dissemination of false information, hate speech, and polarization has accelerated. We argue that these outcomes do not reflect any basic flaw in liberal free speech principles, but point to the necessity of supportive institutions and norms that enable free speech to yield socially beneficial consequences. We develop theoretical arguments that account for the mechanisms that link media freedom to political outcomes, and empirically illustrate the relationship between media freedom and these outcomes by drawing on cross-national data and case studies.