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The “Cyber” Extremist and Digital Algorithms

Dr. Mansour Alshammari The Secretary-General of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – “Etidal”

As we study the phenomenon of extremism, we have become accustomed to considering it to be a mere ideological deviation that belongs to extremist ideological paths. From this standpoint, we have subjected its details, conceptual stages, subtleties, sectarian peculiarities and deep roots to examination and study. Recently, however, we are faced with a new form of extremism that is completely separate from previous forms. In its present form, extremism is no longer the product of a long process of ideological indoctrination, as previously observed in the recruitment processes of extremist groups. These groups would base the recruitment process through framing and rooting tasks, developing integrated curricula that would gradually contaminate the minds of followers through pro-militancy lessons, courses and messages.

The path to extremism starts from the ritualistic extremism associated with worship to radicalization and the development of violent tendencies, to the aggravation of followers’ social relations in order to isolate them from their family, friends and wider communities and instead, push them towards affiliation for organizations that compensate the family and homeland. All this takes time, effort and money, and requires realistic contact between extremist organizations’ brokers who are tasked with recruitment and are blindly driven by this infernal machine, which is based on brainwashing followers through cunning methods of propaganda.

On the other hand, this new form of extremism – demonstrated in recent terrorist events on all social media platforms – and the incitement operations against countries and their policies, no longer requires the constructive process to succeed in producing the extremely brutal models of extremists who neither possess a clear ideological background, nor any official affiliation with an extremist organization. Rather, this extremism suddenly emerges in the public sphere without any introduction or warning signs that would allow the relevant security authorities to anticipate and foil terrorist plans. Adherents are neither criminals nor affiliated – previously or currently – to extremist affiliations, to the extent that they appear unburdened by legal or social flaws and therefore, bypass official monitoring. This is the real danger of this form of extremism.

At the same time, the superficiality of this new extremist paradigm explains its adherents’ ideological and organizational insignificance. However, they possess a tremendous ability to surprise all targets with issues of extremism and terrorism. If superficiality is a feature of weakness for the traditional extremist, it is a dangerous one in this new paradigm, which we call the “Cyber Extremist”. Formerly, the extremist used to project his clear contradictions through many cultural indications – appearance, lexicon, view of the universe, or the concept of salvation, life and death. Thus, it was easy for experts in ideologies to distinguish and monitor such extremists before. Now, however, we find that the current cyber extremist is blending in and interacting with the surrounding social fabric, though not because of the logic of piety (which we think is usually used outside its context within the Western interpretations of extremism). In addition, the significance of this concept naturally requires us to consider the fact that such extremism has already reached a very advanced level of ideological formation, which exposes its adherents to secrets that are not made available to general sympathizers. The true adherent, then, hides these convictions and knowledge while waiting for a decisive moment.

In fact, such behavior is exhibited by extremist leaders rather than the cyber extremist who continues his usual daily interaction smoothly with regular affiliations and his social surroundings without any real intention to cause a radical rupturing of relations. However, through a sudden decision, the extremist separates completely from his behavioral reference to carry out a terrorist act, which ordinarily leaves his family and friends in absolute denial accompanied by initial shock and disbelief. After a while, the reality forces them to acknowledge the bitter truth of these evil acts that turn a friendly husband, nice friend, righteous son, or good neighbor into a criminal, radically stripped of his national identity and all human values.

The pressing questions then are: to what extent can this sudden shift in the cyber extremist’s identity be explained? How much are we capable of searching for new factors that contribute to categorizing cyber extremism as a side phenomenon of the cyber world? These are difficult questions to answer if we only only rely on traditional concepts in the field of extremism.

The key to the new extremist personality lies in the algorithms that organize the networked and digital world in general, according to the relationships by monitoring users across the world. This is done within the framework of arranging and classifying a huge mass of big data, the magnitude and comprehensiveness of which is difficult for the human mind to comprehend. This unimaginable amount of data is constantly subjected to algorithms that order it through the Google Analytics’ method (number of website views) or the “Page Rank” method (a hierarchical scheduling based on dismantling the internal links between the contents and network of relationships). An additional process is the adoption of digital tracking that relies more on artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to predict the behaviour of network visitors.

All this indicates that every use of digital materials on the network is directed usage in one way or another according to the established algorithms. It can be said, therefore, that while the cyber extremist looks at such virtual material and militant discourse, he does not do so entirely by personal choice. In other words, it seems that his choices are directed by different algorithms, which create clickbait that urges him in advance to participate with the others on the same platform as the digital material, approaching closer to mutual interests intertwined with a group of network visitors. This is what naturally includes the cyber extremist within the non-organizational cyber group in the first place. From there, the extremist connects and interacts with the group’s members, circulating material that includes some extremist content.

This continuous interaction with extremism content grows day after day through an internal network of connections described as the cyber mood of the individual/group in question, closely resembling other forms of collective, shared identity that underpin interest in a particular sports team, for example. The collective extremist mindset follows the same principle via the circulation of and exposure to the same digital extremist content, day after day. The algorithms possess the ability to create an emotional response to ensure that the target audience feels compelled to accept extremist content and share it as widely as possible. When the cyber extremist thinks about his religious or ideological inclinations, he interacts enthusiastically with the digital content and shares it with the rest of his network. The algorithms then, serve another purpose. They create a focal point of interest that improves extremist marketing by transforming extremism into an item for consumption, subject to supply and demand. In other words, just as the objective of marketing is to persuade consumers to buy what they do not necessarily need and leads them onto certain trajectories, the extremist recruitment online creates a cyber-controlled jihadist who is neither capable of justifying nor understanding why he feels attracted to violent objectives. We can now begin to understand this particular phenomenon due to algorithms, that enable us to see how extremist entities strive to pump and promote enormous amounts of ideological content into social media.

Social media companies have come under fire for this disturbing and problematic misuse of their marketing algorithms. They have been encouraged – and more recently, coerced – into taking both pro- and reactive regulatory measures against extremist content posted on their platforms. Nevertheless, their measures remain inadequate in preventing or regulating extremist content, especially when it is in Arabic.

The epidemic-like spread of extremist content – now relying almost entirely on automation –  should prompt us all to take responsibility for what is happening on digital networks. Partnership across sectors is key here. We must re-introduce human involvement in the monitoring of our digital networks while raise awareness amongst susceptible target audiences about the dangers of the digital sphere. In our opinion, countering extremism online requires a simultaneous combination of efforts in the ideological and digital spheres, in addition to traditional security-centric counter terrorism, all of which require:

– Greater efforts in drying up ideological references that feed the digital content churned out extremist discourse, for example by blocking, debating and debunking, and countering with alternative ideological narratives.

– Developing algorithms that enable the effective circulation of counter extremism material that is capable of being widely propagated online, while simultaneously weakening the visibility and popularity of radical content.

– Emphasizing – on the local and regional levels – the urgency of agreeing to find a technological green zone, granting authority on network-content filtering and considering any possible alternatives.

Here we stress the importance of compiling all preventative counter extremism efforts in order to eliminate the growth of the roots of cyber extremism. Our ability to destroy the circle of extremist networking and disrupting its effectiveness is reliant on the challenge of developing methodologies and mindsets for combating extremism, fortifying network algorithms, and the up-to-date training of individuals who can understand extremist ideologies and their evolutions. This is a battle in which we confront the distortions and deformities of thought and the crisis of technology, especially as we face a new generation of communication speed that will usher in a new horizon for human interconnection.


*Published in “Middle East” newspapers on Wednesday 23rd, December 2020.