Posts Tagged ‘Jihadi Design’

The New Wars for Attention and Power

January 22, 2019

This is the tenth post in a series of posts on a book by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking titled “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of the title “Win the Net, Win the Day” of a chapter in the book.

Brian Jenkins declared in a 1974 RAND Corporation report, “Terrorism is theater,” that became one of terrorism’s foundational studies. The difference between the effectiveness of the Islamic State and that of terror groups in the past was not the brains of the ISIS; it was the medium they were using. Mobile internet access could be found everywhere; smartphones were available in any bazaar. Advanced video and image editing tools were just one illegal download away, and an entire generation was well acquainted with their use. For those who weren’t, there were free online classes offered by a group called Jihadi Design. It promised to take ISIS supporters ‘from zero to professionalism’ in just a few sessions. The most dramatic change from terrorism was that distributing a global message was as easy as pressing ”send,” with the dispersal facilitated by a network of super-spreaders beyond any one state’s control.

ISIS networked its propaganda pushing out a staggering volume of online messages. In 2016 Charlie Winter counted nearly fifty different ISIS media hubs, each based in different regions with different target audiences, but all threaded through the internet. These hubs were able to generate over a thousand “official” ISIS releases, ranging from statements to online videos, in just a one-month period.

They spun a tale in narratives. Human minds are wired to seek and create narratives. Every moment of the day, our brains are analyzing new events and finding them in thousand of different narratives already stowed in our memories. In 1944 psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel produced a short film that showed three geometric figures (two triangles and a circle) bouncing off each other at random. They screened the film to a group of research subjects and asked them to interpret the shapes’ actions. All but one of the subjects described these abstract objects as living beings; most saw them as representations of humans. In the shapes’ random movements they expressed motives, emotions, and complex personal histories such as: the circle was “worried,” one triangle was “innocent” and the other was “blinded by rage.” Even in crude animation all but one observer saw a story of high drama.

The first rule in building effective narratives is simplicity. In 2000, the average attention span of an internet user was measured at twelve seconds. By 2015 it had shrunk to eight seconds. During the 2016 election Carnegie Mellon University researchers studied and ranked the complexity of the candidates language (using the Flesch-Kincaid score). They found that Trump’s vocabulary measured at the lowest level of all the candidates, comprehensible to someone with a fifth-grade education. This phenomenon is consistent with a larger historic pattern. Starting with George Washington’s first inaugural address, which was one of the most complex overall, American presidents communicated at a college level only when newspapers dominated mass communication. But each time a new technology took hold, complexity dropped. The authors write, “To put it another way: the more accessible the technology, the simpler a winning voice becomes. It may be Sad! But it is True!

The second rule of narrative is resonance. Nearly all effective narratives conform to what social scientists call “frames.” Frames are proud of specific languages and cultures that feel instantly and deeply familiar. To learn more about frames enter “frames” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

The third and final rule of narrative is novelty. Just as narrative frames help build resonance, they also serve to make things predictable. However, too much predictability can be boring, especially in an age of microscopic attention spans and unlimited entertainment. Moreover, there seems to be no limit on the quality of narrative. Some messages far exceed the limits of credibility, yet they are believed and spread.

Additional guidelines are pull the heartstrings and feed the fury. Final guidance would be inundation: drown the web, run the world.