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Fortifying Public Opinion against the Battle of the Three Orbitals of Extremism

Dr. Mansour Al-Shammari, Secretary-General of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology - “Etidal”

The extremism project with all its streams seeks to infiltrate in every way into people’s conscience, moods, and sensitivities within the framework of an initial indirect targeting of the state that represents its first and last enemy. In a step usually earlier than traditional direct terrorist action, so that when every extremist ideology succeeds in reaching minds, it has taken its first step on the path of achieving its far-reaching goals, which are manifested in creating a security chaos and dissolving from social contracts and legal controls. Which means blowing up the safety valve of society from the ground, and providing the right environment for the growth of violence. The task of seizing control of the prevailing emotions among people is its fateful battle, as it is the smoothest approach to break the harmony of society and separating it from its spiritual affiliation to its institutions. When extremism achieves the slightest victory on this ideological and emotional level, it gains new followers on earth, and attracts others emotionally, waiting to integrate them into its dangerous organizational body. Until it swells silently and secretly, if we do not anticipate it with the necessary measures, until it becomes a deadly tumor that has implanted and grown in the social body by surprise.

The general mood of people in which convictions and emotions are intertwined, with what appears ostensibly to be an ideological position, even if in reality it is merely a reaction controlled by many explicit and hidden psychological factors that have nothing to do with ideology in the first place, is precisely what is termed by “public opinion”. Which is formed in one aspect of the varying inclinations of people according to their factional and personal situations. Due to the natural dynamic of development within societies that is responsible of difference in visions, but the public opinion in another aspect is related to that central consensus that prevails within a particular society regarding its constants and basic affiliations’ pillars at the national level. Here, the stability strength of this vital component becomes a crucial matter for the lives of people. That is why the battle of the extremism project and its strategic bet is presented in penetrating this second dimension of public opinion, by creating a public opinion propaganda that is compatible with the goals of the destructive project. It should be noted here that it is wrong to believe that the criterion for constructing this opinion depends on the principle of truth with its cognitive and moral significance. It is a belief that is usually based on absolute reliance on reliability in the context of defending legitimate causes, and on directing criticism in the name of virtue and honesty towards anyone who engages in a malicious campaign to confuse what those who hold this position see as truth or to promote what they consider false. The fact is that relying on this ideological and methodological innocence in understanding our confrontation with extremism is a precious gift offered free to those in charge on the extremism project who do not pay attention to such considerations, even more so, they seem to be more understanding of the changes of the post-truth era. As the specialist observer of the extremism project notices the extent of the procedural activity of those responsible for it and their cunning in exploiting the state of ideological reassurance that some people experience regarding what happens in the digital worlds.

Hence, we must realize that public opinion has become the product of a full-fledged industry, especially in what we are witnessing of the successive and accelerating qualitative digital revolutions, which have made available to the public tools that were not previously available to the most advanced countries, nor to the most experienced and capable institutions in media and propaganda policies. Thus, the extremism project became a pioneer in the competition to use these tools, which made it worryingly easy to compete with official institutions burdened with the responsibilities and duties of legal and moral controls. It also contributed to make it take on an inflated digital size, crowding out the discourse of official institutions, which gave it a striking presence on the social media networks’ level. This gave extremist content the opportunity to reach broader segments of society, away from the narrow secret circle of extremist organizations in their traditional historical form. These contents – unfortunately – particularly affected those young age groups that represent the new digital generation that is completely dependent on these networks in building their perception of the world and what surrounds it. Which the extremism project seriously targets, by creating deceptive propaganda public opinion, with all the risks that this entails, the ability to spread, and the skill in falsifying and promoting.

The primary material through which extremism diversifies its dangerous products lies in what is called the basic emotions within human nature, such as anxiety, fear, guilt, sympathy, hopes, and betting on high ideals, to other ordinary feelings that constitute the public conscience. However, the deception mechanisms that the extremist project works on and is constantly developing, allow it to create dangerous complex combinations of these feelings, such as imaginary fears, unjustified feelings of guilt, false hopes, and myths of people. So that all this complex component of emotions turns into a general mood characterized by aggression, which is achieved when all these emotional combinations are compiled according to the principles of the structural triangle of extremism: “the aggressor, the victim, and the savior,” which in fact expresses the terrorist mood in general. Regardless of its cultural origins, due to its ability to be supported by narratives of victimhood, but it serves practically the same goals, by circumventing the data of collective memory, in order to cleverly pick from it the elements of incitement, until he succeeds in poisoning public opinion linked to constants. Then, the gate of danger opens, and a glide path towards self-destructive conflicts is taking shape, in which the catastrophic effects are difficult to stop when they occur in the reality of societies. The situation of all countries that have lost this social harmony around constants is the best evidence of the danger of negligence, regarding the factors that cause such an outcome.

As for the strategy envisioned and prepared by the extremism project to achieve its previous goals, it starts with the so-called the Methodology of Successive Orbits, which narrows the path of polarization downward then expands its range upward. In contrast to the traditional strategy that relied on creating direct subordination between the leadership and the followers in an almost linear manner through narrow organizational affiliation, which took a clear and outright doctrinal and ideological form. As for the digital situation, that we live in today, this solid traditional core of organizational followers represents merely the first narrow orbit that takes on alone a doctrinal and ideological form. Which is mostly an orbit that hides behind the more closing social media platforms that provide the digital framework for direct and selective organizational communication surrounded by many technical and confidential precautions. The second orbit is formed through the communication events of part of this narrow outpost of extremists, which creates contents in order to spread their dangerous materials through the most popular and open networks. This category represents the carrier or mediator between the narrow extremist ideological group, and the audience of virtual sympathizers who receive these contents as reliable sources of knowledge. There is a transition to the third orbit, which is formed unintentionally, as a result to the nature of the controlling matrices in the network software. In fact, it is an orbit generated by those algorithms that automatically sort digital groups – not communities – that come as a result of network connections, regardless of the convictions or inclinations of their owners. It is sufficient for any subscriber within the social networks to click on certain content repeatedly, until this same content is suggested to the accounts linked to it within digital groups that may not have a direct relationship to the subject of this material in the first place. This is where the potential and unplanned impact of extremist content extends to its greatest extent. On this upward journey, it encounters fragility that allows preying on new sympathizers, who in turn move downward, when the extremist digital influencer preys on them, through successive orbits until they fall into the narrow outpost of the organizational followers’ orbit. Between the stages of these orbits, in which ideological, propaganda, and programmatic factors intersect, the extremism project is being seriously prepared to create a parasitic public opinion that carries within all the elements of danger and threat to the stability of societies and to the world’s security.

Therefore, it is urgently necessary to assume the responsibility of going through this battle in order to protect public opinion in its second dimension, at the level of the three orbits combined. It would be a grave mistake to believe that traditional debate at the level of the outpost of explicit and ideological extremism is sufficient to protect society from the dangers of this destructive project, which is taking today completely new forms. To relieve us from going through the battle on other fronts, confronting the extremism project – in our opinion – must be complete or not. Therefore, it is appropriate that we first complete our ideological refutation of extremist content with a modern methodology that suits contemporary ideological challenges. So that we expose its insignificance in a strictly scientific manner, prevent it from taking over the cognitive resources of society, and reveal its deceptive and cunning manipulation mechanism. This will be the front of the first orbit. Then, secondly, it is necessary to pay attention to those digital materials that seek to shape societal sensitivities, by monitoring, anticipating, and besieging them with strict legal controls, which end with preventing their access to the recipient. Considering that, they are fake goods, and are extremely toxic content that requires preventive measures to prevent it from spreading in the first place, especially among the most vulnerable age groups. It is our front on the second orbit of extremism. Finally, our full awareness of the magnitude of digital transformations, in which the current world exists after the artificial intelligence revolution, requires that we engage in the battle of algorithms that constitute the deep soul of digital life. If we do not quickly find a solid foothold in this field, the leads of our public opinion and our digital mood will be at the mercy of a silent and blind force whose complex results cannot be predicted. This is our battlefront in the third orbit.

On this basis, our keenness to understand what is going on in the worlds of digital platforms and their relationship to the project of extremism, in fact, is anticipating the labyrinthine pitfalls of public opinion within the three orbits of extremism. This comprehensive understanding of the risks will be the actual and necessary key to fortify us against the extremist project that works with extreme cunning and hatred to lead its battle against the stability of nations and the future of humanity.

Published in Asharq Al-Awsat, on Friday June 7, 2024