Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ISIS consolidating as a networked ideological organization

Public commentary about ISIS has persisted in discussing its "horror," to quote Francis Ford Coppola's film about Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, quoting Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899).  All the horror has come to the public through the Internet, whose televisual excess is a study in itself.

To add to the sense of horror, there has been a wave of incomprehensibility. It has gradually yet quickly over the past six months, given way to acceptance that a military campaign by the forces of liberalism can only succeed with a massive invasive effort, or something...  "Something" being a way of getting the conventions of explanatory analysis back to the depiction of chaos of Coppola's Vietnam.

The only certainty about ISIS is that it exists and is likely to continue to exist. My theory is that the Internet will guarantee this survival outcome because this particular jihad is a networked ideological organization.

In contrast, the forces arrayed against it are also networked, yet in a mirror image metaphor of the Internet, distributed in such a way that there is no single pathway of comprehension to the singularity of the networked ideological organization that is ISIS. More importantly, unlike ISIS, the opposition organization is chaotic and consequently feckless, conflicted by divergent interests.

In Uprising, I argued that "ideological grooming" was was way of understanding how the Internet "creates" jihadists. The networked ideological organization driving ISIS has a singular focus which reinforces its success. This is, the "singular focus" is a key characteristic of the fundamentalism that makes ISIS a success.

ISIS jihadists are constructed in ways that have recently been referred to as "persuasion profiling" by Maurit Kaptein.

While persuasion profiling has the glowing aura of capitalist confidence about it - how to sell more stuff to consumers - the unfortunate insight to accept is that the same communication technology that makes it possible to sell consumerism through profiling to weak minded consumers everywhere, is selling jihadist ideas over the Internet as well. This convergence of "ideological grooming" sees the Internet providing the machinery of communication for anything - consumerism or jihad. This is a critically essential perspective. It also makes one uncomfortable, because it is not possible to merely point the finger at jihadists and their singularity, when westernized consumers are using the same Internet-based communication tools to achieve their personal singular goals.

Important research from Sherry Turkle at the MIT initiative on technology and self reported in her 2012 book Alone Together, offers concrete support for the ideological grooming of young people who are "always on." It is from within this global community of young people that jihadists are being recruited for fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Few if any researchers are making this connection because it is distressing to accept: the global Internet goes both ways! (It could be the Internet's AC/DC effect).

In this situation, different, new, alternative or contradictory ideas are excluded in an endless feedback loop of ideological reinforcement. Ideas are conveyed over the Internet through the unmediated power of visual stimuli on the monitor. (There is a lot of useful research to be conducted on youth and Internet influence in decision making.)

Increasingly, psychological aspects of human behavior are being used to attract attention to sites - and keep users on line. While this is not the place to engage in that discussion, the value propositions of Google, Facebook and most other Internet behemoths are founded on reconstituting the human eye-ball as the essential access point for action. It is entirely appropriate to recognize this contradictory characteristic of the Internet: that the intensification of visual stimuli through higher quality pixelation generates ideological encasement.

"Persuasion" is hardly needed in this context. Once the science of keeping the eye engaged is perfected, the story has a beginning and an end, a start and a finish that is determined once the eye is fully engaged. (I have written about technological determinism before on this blog. My argument about ISIS is an extension of the case for technological determinism.)

That many liberal critics do not want to accept the closed or encased nature of the Internet's ideological construction is a serious limitation.The enthusiasm for the pleasures / potential of the Internet has produced its counter, a refusal to shut down that pleasure. Alternatively, there is a naive belief in the capacity of communication to offer a public, even revolutionary good that reproduces emancipation in a liberal utopia.

 I am thinking here of Andrew Feenberg, who is not so much a liberal as a Marxist theoretician (and a very good one). The closing criticism by William Rehg of Feenberg's book Between Reason and Experience makes the point:

Feenberg's oeuvre reveals an enduring confidence that local exercises of agency and resistance, aided by participatory forms of administration, can gather enough momentum to redirect technology and society in surprising ways. Although there may be wisdom in that confidence, it assumes we have not all been thoroughly seduced -- or imprisoned -- by the profitable comforts of consumption.

Frankly, we are at the point where the redirection of technology and society has indeed been redirected in "surprising ways," as the Internet and ISIS connection makes clear: talk about local exercises of agency! For ISIS, Feenberg's hoped for ambitions of localized activism are inverted, within a negative view of his aspirations.

IS has used the Internet for its own purposes - organizing its business, its campaigns and management and religious, economic and social programs. The model for this combination of political media is considered Leni Riefenstahl's documentary film from 1932 Triumph of the Will. As Nazi propaganda, it worked as a feel-good tool to convey to the masses the message of the new Germany under Hitler. Seen in terms of Walter Benjamin's definition of proletarianization, in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," it took an otherwise uplifting art form - cinema - and used it as propaganda to speak to the lowest  - the immature and irrational - instincts of the proletariat.

On 7 October 2014, The Guardian published a story by Steve Rose, "The ISIS propaganda war:a high tech media jihad," which took this line of argument. Nearly a year later there is less public discussion of this matter and more recognition that ISIS is here to stay. Certainly it is well researched, as  indicated in Ben Taub's article "Journey to Jihad" in The New Yorker  June 1, 2015.  

Furthermore, the "So-called Islamic state" was referred to as "IS" in July 2015 (short for Islamic State) by National Public Radio in the US. This implicit change in reference was presumably not welcomed. The earlier nomenclature of the "So-called Islamic State" has reappeared. To speak of "IS" is to give it legitimacy.

Nevertheless, on July 21 2015, The New York Times called it. The connection between the Internet and the state is clear from the article. A close read indicates - as has been the case for some time - that the IS does not rule by terror alone. In fact it rules by the Internet.

In Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Abdel Bari Atwan argues for the centrality of all things digital. As the preferred apparatus by which the ISIS message is offered, the Internet carries the media of video atrocities and speeches, recruitment appeals and politics. As a working example of a networked ideological organization, this application of all things digital cannot be dismissed. As Malise Ruthven wrote in reviewing Atwan's book in the July issue of the New York Review of Books: "... ISIS terror is a systematically applied policy that follows the ideas put forward in jihadist literature, notably in an on-line tract, The management of Savagery, by the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji." (emphasis added)

To counter the consolidation of ISIS and thus the public view that the US and its allies cannot control the entire geo-political world, another point is gaining ground in some quarters. This is the head in the sand and "protect the homeland approach:" as long as citizens in the US / NATO don't experience ISIS directly, then let it go. Why the ISIS threat is totally overblown by John Mueller makes this point, as a kind of colonial reaction to going to war: as long as the war is over there it can stay there.

There is great difficulty in making sense of the rise of ISIS. Jacques, a reader commentating on the above New York Times story made the point very well:

 The question the West needs to ask is, if not ISIS, who? Who will promise more sustainable stability in the future? How could ISIS ever be defeated? Already it's a minuscule army - less than 100,000 - controlling an area with a population of almost 9 million. The regions sunnis would prefer ISIS to the Iranian based militias who fight in the name of Iraq these days (a gift of the Blair-Bush-Cheney junta). (21 July)

In the August edition of the New York Review of Books an anonymous analyst suggested that "It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination or humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS."

The same analyst indicated the presence of Twitter as part of the ISIS success strategy:
 In ISIS: The State of Terror, Stern and Berger provide a fascinating analysis of the movement’s use of video and social media. They have tracked individual Twitter accounts, showing how users kept changing their Twitter handles, piggybacked on the World Cup by inserting images of beheadings into the soccer chat, and created new apps and automated bots to boost their numbers. Stern and Berger show that at least 45,000 pro-movement accounts were online in late 2014, and describe how their users attempted to circumvent Twitter administrators by changing their profile pictures from the movement’s flags to kittens. But this simply raises the more fundamental question of why the movement’s ideology and actions—however slickly produced and communicated—have had popular appeal in the first place.
As a networked ideological organization, IS could prove to be the ultimate case study in what western liberalism will see as the horror of Internet smartness.