Is self-radicalization a threat to the U.S?

It seems as though social media is taking on a more central role in terrorism. Tashfeen Malik, one of the suspects in the San Bernardino massacre, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook before the attacks. Hilary Clinton said the Islamic State has become “the most effective recruiter in the world,” and urged social media companies to work alongside the government to shut down terrorism before it happens. President Obama has said that the shootings in San Bernardino, if not directed by ISIS, were at least inspired by the group, and self-radicalization appears to be the latest motive in the investigation.

David Schanzer is the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University. He writes:

“Yes, self-radicalization of violent extremists – no matter what ideology motivate them – are threats to the United States. But the real question we should be asking ourselves is: How large a threat is this compared to other national security, public safety, and other threats we face in our daily lives? The answer to this question is much more complicated. If we look at the number of deaths resulting from self-radicalized extremists in the United States since 9/11 – the conclusion should be the threat is small. About 93 fatalities have been caused by this kind of violence over the past 14 years, according to the New America Foundation. That is less than the number of homicides that take place every three days in the United States. If we look, instead, at the fear and anger these incidents generate, then the amount of harm (and therefore the threat) is much greater. These impacts are real and they should not be discounted, so it may make sense for society to dedicate a disproportional amount of resources to stopping extremist political violence than the number of deaths suggests. But we should also keep in mind that the strategy of terrorism is for weak groups and individuals to magnify their power through the spectacular use of violence and achieve political outcomes they could not produce through the normal political process. Terrorists want us to overreact and take actions that harm our long term interests and advance theirs. The Iraq War, the CIA torture program, and Donald Trump’s proposal to create religious-based tests for entry into the United States are good examples of overreactions to terrorism that will hurt us in the long run.”

Michael Stefanone is an associate professor of communication at the University at Buffalo. His research focuses on the intersection between social psychology and technology, specializing in computer-mediated communication and social media. He writes:

“When considering the role of social media in recruitment for terrorism, it is unclear how effective these tools are for recruitment, regardless of political rhetoric and the popular press. I’m unaware of evidence supporting its effectiveness, and it is naïve to think corporations that operate social media websites can ‘shut down’ terrorism, as is being suggested by some politicians today. The instances of recruitment and self-radicalization covered by the media certainly are sensational and get a lot of attention, but we can’t predict who ultimately decides to engage in terrorist acts.

Social media enable individuals to communicate with global audiences with very low cost. So the probability that extremist messages resonate with audience members is likely increasing, and it is well known that carefully constructed messages can influence attitudes and behavior. For example, the incident at Planned Parenthood in Colorado illustrates how campaign rhetoric in the U.S. apparently shaped the shooter’s attitudes and influenced his decision to take action. Still, behavior like this can’t be predicted.

Social media also enable individuals with similar beliefs to connect. Humans have always been attracted to like-minded others, but when we communicate online information about our identities is often filtered out or obscured, which influences our communicative behavior. The outcome is often more aggressive behavior, which may be compounded by a shift toward more risky or extreme positions when we communicate in groups. You can see these processes manifest in comments to news articles online, or to politically motivated posts from your friends on your Facebook pages. The combination of increased anonymity and shared group identity enabled by social media facilitate polarization. However, when it comes to self-radicalization, technology probably isn’t the determining factor here. Social media is just the latest evolution of modern communication tools, and it’s easy to blame these tools. The mechanics of social influence and persuasion, along with the geopolitical landscape today, are far more complex ideas worthy of consideration.”

Today’s Question: Is self-radicalization a threat to the U.S?