Research Spotlight: From Twitter to Terrorism

Cody Bijou receiving an award

It starts innocently enough. You create a social media account. You begin liking posts from people you admire, following voices whose views resonate. The pieces of your own story you post are “favorited” and affirmed by friends (and strangers) who share your values, your worldview, your sense of humor.

Except for that one friend who can’t seem to let a meme pass without picking a partisan fight in your comments area. You block him. You go on posting and replying, scrolling and liking, consuming your entertainment and even your news from a self-censored feed.

And that’s where the trouble starts, says Cody Bijou, of AX’s Zeta chapter at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Before you know it, you’ve fashioned an insular community of people who consistently reinforce your view of the world and your place in it. Together with your friends and followers, you have constructed a shared reality – however artificial it may be.

At a glance, Bijou admits, this may not seem like much of a problem. The fact that people tend to group up around shared worldviews and metanarratives is an age-old sociological phenomenon. And there is benefit in this reality: positive shared narratives can inspire hope, courage, resistance and kindness in the face of harsh realities like injustice, oppression, and violence.

But Bijou argues it’s precisely this seductive temptation to censor and filter that is fueling the ideological firepower behind ISIS’s campaign of global terror in this digital age.

“We’ve actually made a lot of progress over the last several years combatting ISIS in the physical realm, battling for territory,” Bijou said. “But in the ideological realm, ISIS continues to advance. They’ve been so effective in using the web to spread propaganda and recruit that we’re seeing copycat organizations use the same tactics. So my research this past year has been focused on trying to answer why their tactics are working and how we might combat them.”

Bijou, a political science and communications double major, says his interest in ISIS was first sparked by his upper-level political science course on, “World Conflict and Terrorism.”  Bijou was fascinated by how ISIS uses communication strategies to gain ideological ground, and he wanted to bring his two disciplinary interests together in a line of inquiry.

To begin his work, Bijou turned to Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT), a communication theory developed by Ernest Boormann. SCT explores how individuals have a tendency to build a collective sense of identity and reality around shared common fantasies.

Cody Bijou

Major: Political Science

College: University of Arkansas at Monticello

Recognitions & Presentations: SURF grant, presented in Berlin and Qatar, presented at the 2017 AX National Convention

Future Plans: Cody plans to pursue his master’s at San Francisco or London School of Economics.

Using SCT, Bijou constructed a theoretical model to explain how and why ISIS’s recruiting strategies are so effective.

“One of ISIS’s key tactics is spreading propaganda through private forums and calls to action, mostly on the deep web. They offer these romanticized, fantastical messages that prey on people who are disenfranchised. They offer either the promise of purpose in life by fighting to bring about a pure Muslim state, or the promise of salvation in death by committing an act of Jihad,” Bijou said.

“You can see why these sorts of narratives that feed and fuel a person’s self worth would especially appeal to someone who feels marginalized or isolated. I think that’s one of the reasons the group is having such success recruiting in Western countries, where discrimination and cultural bias are so rampant.”

At the heart of Bijou’s work is a sense of empathy for the disenfranchised recruit-turned-radical on which ISIS so successfully preys.

Some people might be tempted to dehumanize terrorists as monsters, thereby denying any implication of similarity between themselves and the extremists who commit these atrocities. Bijou’s questions, on the other hand, force us to consider whether our own online behaviors are similar in kind (if not in scale) to the sort of artificial world-building ISIS encourages.

Put differently, we may not be as immune as we think to the complex forces that drive reasonable people to extremes. And that narrative might just have the the power to promote the attitudes and behaviors of moderation, tolerance, and compromise on which peaceful societies depend.

“Whenever you close off discourse, when you cut off communicative bridges in any aspect of your life, you eliminate the chance for compromise,” Bijou says. “There’s no middle ground, only extremes. In politics, on social media, I think we have to be more accountable to open communication if we’re going to be people who combat this type of violence.”