What does prolonged exposure to jihadist online propaganda do to us?
One popular answer, especially among politicians, is that it radicalizes our thoughts and transforms us into terrorists.
A more nuanced answer, put forward by terrorism scholars, is that while sustained exposure to extremist online material is not in itself a sufficient cause of radicalization, it can reinforce existing assumptions and beliefs that are already tending toward the extreme.
Yet in even the most robust scholarship on online radicalization, there is a conspicuous lack of data on how the most important variable in online radicalization — namely, the audience for extremist material — understands and engages with that material.
For the past 18 months, I have been conducting research on how young adults in the West perceive and react to Islamic State propaganda videos. I myself have watched hundreds of hours of these videos, including scenes of horrifying violence and cruelty. Without a doubt, this has been detrimental to my spiritual well-being; I’ve had night terrors. Yet none of this was imposed on me. I willingly — sometimes excitedly — exposed myself to this material, including and especially the very worst of it. This has given my research a personal dimension: Why do I want to watch? What is it about the Islamic State that so captivates me?
Last September, the criminologist Jack Cunliffe and I started an online survey to test audience responses to official English-language Islamic State videos. The idea behind the survey was simple: Ask ordinary young adults to watch these videos — which we edited to exclude scenes of graphic violence — and then get them to tell us about that viewing experience.
Despite the ethical and legal challenges in doing this research (Britain’s 2006 Terrorism Act makes it a criminal offense to disseminate terrorist propaganda), our survey went ahead. We collected more than 3,000 responses and will be presenting our findings at the Terrorism, Crime, Culture conference in Copenhagen this week.
Around 1,300 survey respondents were from North America and about 1,000 were from Britain. The remainder came from all over the world. Their mean age was 30, with a big clump — around 1,800 — between 18 and 26. Most (67 percent) were male. Thirty-six percent identified as having no religion, 17 percent identified as Christian, and 4 percent identified as Muslim.
A vast majority — 93 percent — reported a negative attitude toward the Islamic State, and just 1 percent said they had a positive view of the group. Six percent reported that they were neutral. Of the 34 people who reported a positive attitude toward the Islamic State, five were Muslims.
It did not surprise us that a vast majority of respondents expressed a negative attitude toward the Islamic State or that those who held a positive view of the group said almost uniformly positive things about the videos embedded in the survey. Nor was it surprising that most respondents were impressed by the technical quality of the Islamic State videos. They are undeniably sophisticated and movie-like in style.
What did surprise us was that a significant number of those who held a negative attitude toward the Islamic State were still receptive to its utopian message, while still larger numbers exhibited a curiosity about watching the kind of “slick” and horrifying atrocity porn for which the group has become notorious.
We were furthermore surprised by respondents’ reported exposure to the Islamic State’s videos. Fifty-seven percent said they had watched an Islamic State video before, beyond clips shown on TV and in online news material. Of this number, an even more remarkable 46 percent said they had seen more than 10 Islamic State videos. This may well say more about the selection biases of our sample than about young adults’ exposure to the Islamic State — or it may not. A recent Policy Exchange report showed that the ease with which Islamic State videos can still be viewed on the internet, despite the pushback from social media companies, is quite remarkable.
Responding to a clip from an Islamic State video in which a handsome, strong-looking fighter hands out toys to young children dressed in colorful clothes, around a third of respondents expressed positive judgments about the physical strength and moral character of the fighter. And a not insignificant number — 28 percent — said the video gave them a “warm feeling,” and this percentage drops to only 26 percent when restricted to those who proclaim to feel negatively about the Islamic State.
This was in marked contrast to respondents’ reaction to a clip from a mass-beheading video in which a group of Islamic State fighters marches Syrian Army captives to their execution. Just 3 percent of our respondents said the video overall made them “feel good.” A vast majority reported feelings of discomfort, disgust and fear.
Still, only 11 percent of our survey respondents said that the video bored them, suggesting that for the majority, while staged mass beheadings may be unpleasant to watch, they nevertheless make for compelling viewing. Indeed, when asked if they wanted to view the video to its grisly completion, 33 percent said yes. Less than half — 44 percent — said definitively that they didn’t want to see the video to the end.
Given the nature and size of the sample, our survey is not representative and does not warrant firm generalizations about young people’s engagement with Islamic State videos. But it does yield some suggestive findings, not least of which concerns the dark power of this propaganda.
In “The Anatomy of Disgust,” the legal scholar William Ian Miller observes that “something makes us look at the bloody auto accident, thrill to movies of horror, gore, and violence; something makes porn big business and still draws people to circus sideshows.” It isn’t clear what that something is, but it can be certain that the Islamic State understands the basic dynamic, because for all the disgust, discomfort and fear that its beheading videos evoke, something makes us — or many of us, at least — want to look.
Perhaps more important, our survey suggests that even among those who hold a negative view of the Islamic State, the softer image of the group cultivated in so much of its propaganda seems to resonate positively among a significant number of people.
The broader question of how exposure to the Islamic State’s online content features in the radicalization of jihadists is not answered in our research. It may, in fact, be unanswerable, given how difficult it is to disentangle the myriad causal threads in the complex process by which someone becomes radicalized. But there is still much that can be learned about the role and affective impact of jihadist propaganda.
Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent and a contributing writer to The Atlantic.