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 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.
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.
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.
Contested Ground: Disentangling Material and Symbolic Attachment to Territory. With Guy Grossman and Devorah Manekin. Published in Political Science Research and Methods. [Paper] [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.
Countering Violent Extremism [Paper]
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 addressing ‘deeper’ factors that might facilitate radicalization into terrorism. While CVE initiatives are widespread around the world, there is very little systematic research on the their effectiveness. This paper 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 over a hundred activities organized by the U.S. Government and geo-located data on the behavior of Islamic State sympathizers on Twitter, I find that counter-extremism activities were followed by a significant decrease in online pro-ISIS chatter, especially in localities that held a large number of counter-extremism events.
Radicalization and Recruitment in an Internet Age. With Barbara Walter and Gregoire Phillips. In Progress.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Islamic State successfully convinced tens of thousands of individuals around the world to join its ranks. Many attribute this surge in foreign recruits to sophisticated internet media campaigns developed by the group since 2011. Indeed, over the past few years, ISIS has been releasing thousands of propaganda materials on the Internet, which have been widely disseminated on the group’s social media networks. And yet, there is currently very little empirical analysis of what exactly was marketed in ISIS’s propaganda, what messages resonated with potential recruits, and what types of content were more likely to radicalize. This project breaks ground in research on Internet propaganda and radicalization in several ways. Using video-as-data object detection and automated audio-to-text transcription algorithms, we uncover the content of thousands propaganda message produced by ISIS between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2016. We identify the disseminations of these propaganda materials in a large dataset of Islamic State sympathizers on Twitter, consisting of over 1.6 million users. Employing information on network connections, we find the users who were exposed to ISIS propaganda, and study how exposure to propaganda shaped their subsequent online behavior, compared to users who were not exposed to propaganda. Results are coming soon.
Terrorism as a Provocation Strategy: Transnational Terrorism and Anti-Muslim Hostility in the West. In progress.
Armed groups use terrorism to mobilize recruitment by provoking targeted governments to overreact with violence against potential supporters. In this paper, I argue that in addition to provoking governments, transnational terrorism in Western countries is also used to provoke targeted populations to become indiscriminately hostile to the crowd from which potential supporters can be drawn. In the context of Jihadi terrorism in the West, this means increased anti-Muslim sentiment after terrorist attacks. This study examines whether acts of terrorism perpetrated by radical Jihadists in Europe and the United States increase anti-Muslim rhetoric and support for the ideology of far-right, anti-Muslim parties among individuals in targeted countries. Combining data on terrorist attacks from 2010 to 2016 with high-frequency, panel data from Twitter, I show that individuals significantly increase anti-Muslim rhetoric after they are exposed to terrorist violence. This effect spikes immediately after attacks, decays over time, but remains significantly higher than pre-attack levels up to a month after the events.
Violent Extremism and Social Media: A New Dataset on Islamic State Supporters on Twitter. In Progress.
The world has witnessed a wave of violent extremism fueled in large part by propaganda disseminated on the Internet. The Islamic State has been one of the most prominent groups to inspire violence and recruit supporters through online means. While online social networks are known to be central to spreading violent extremism, we currently have little systematic data enabling a rigorous micro-level study of the phenomenon. This paper introduces a new geo-located, high-frequency panel dataset on the online behavior of almost two million individuals linked to the Islamic State on Twitter. The dataset includes historical content produced by these individuals, and allows linking online behavior to offline data through information on user geographic locations. These rich data enables testing a large number hypotheses in new and exciting ways.
How Increasing Media Freedom Affects Political Discourse, Knowledge, and Polarization: Tracing the Mechanisms. With Jack Snyder. In progress.
Free news and communications media is one of the central pillars of political life in stable democracies. Without it, citizens would lack the information to evaluate public issues, organize political groups, choose prudently among candidates for office, and hold officials accountable. Consequently, democrats typically take it for granted that increases in media freedom in countries that lack it will contribute to democratization, the enhancement of rights, the rule of law, and social stability. On average, and over the long run, they are certainly correct. In the short run, however, the impact of increased media freedom on these desirable outcomes is much more complex and varied. In this project, we empirically study how increases in media freedom are associated with various democratic outcomes in countries across the world, using micro-level data from multiple survey rounds over time.