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Love and hate are in the air

Written by Chiara de Franco, Associate Professor at Center for War Studies

When exactly one year ago, ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, it issued a then record-breaking 40.000 tweets in a single day. Today ISIS produces an average 200.000 tweets per day, which combined with a sharp hashtag strategy makes its content a global trend dominating twitter discussions. ISIS’ use of twitter is just one element of its broader communication strategy but not surprisingly the most debated.

It has reinvigorated discussions about the so-called ‘Internet Revolution’ and challenged journalists and scholars who after the Arab Spring had expressed high hopes that the Internet could open closed societies. Some scholars had immediately warned us against simplistic understandings of the social role of digital media. Anderson, for example, refused to consider the Arab Spring as a product of the new media ecology and argued that explanations for what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have to be found in the economic grievances and specific social dynamics of those countries. More provocatively, the prolific work of Evgeny Morozov has given innumerable examples of the ‘dark’ side of the Internet. A dark side that finally seems to have become obvious to all with ISIS’ use of twitter.

On line Radicalization?
Scholarly works are not only showing that the role of private companies (such as Facebook and Twitter) and their own economic agendas is important, but also that individuals’ empowerment (for the better or the worse) is still determined by ‘off line’ social factors more than by their ‘on line’ interaction.

After all, social media users tend to carefully craft the list of tweeters or Facebook friends that they follow, and choose evidence that supports what they already believe, which is the kind of confirmation bias that Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman has written about. Thus, if it is true that extremists and terrorists use the Internet as an operational tool, including recruitment, training, coordination and communication, it also remains true that radicalization does not happen ‘on line’.  

Thus, while most of academic and popular debates about ‘The Internet Revolution’ have focused on the ‘color’ of such revolution, I contend that we still lack knowledge to fully appreciate ‘the internet effect’. Scholars announcing that an ‘Internet Revolution’ is taking place base their analysis on a neat distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, which is naïf and misleading. Is the Internet really generating a deep and fundamental change in communication that requires us to talk about a ‘revolution’ and to use a completely new framework of analysis? I don’t think so. But can then we conclude that no change is produced at all? 

Media Effects
It seems to me that while arguing for or rejecting the ‘Internet revolution’ thesis, most scholars replicate an old approach to the media which has shown its limits in the literature of the so-called ‘CNN effect’, which is the hypothesis arguing for political leaders’ loss of policy control to global television, as if they no longer made decisions on the basis of interests but were rather driven by emotional public opinion aroused by television coverage. 

As works on the CNN effect were centered on the news, that is to say, the content of the so-called ‘news media’, forgetting McLuhan’s lesson that the medium is the message, so scholars studying the Internet today continue to focus their analysis on ‘information’ rather than on the social practices that social agents develop to take advantage of new media, and a new media ecology. 

In this context, I think we should go back to the seminal work by Joshua Meyrowitz, who, working mainly on TV, explained how media effects should be understood by looking at the way new media rearrange the division between different social situations. The media, he argues, construct and shape new social arenas by building bridges between the existing ones, and – I would add – allowing social agents to develop new practices.

Meyorwitz’ ideas should be at the core of any attempt at understanding the impact of the Internet, and of social media in particular. At the Centre for War Studies, I am trying to translate such ideas into a project investigating how conflict dynamics might be affected by international practices exploiting new communication tools and challenging traditional lines of division and aggregation between communities – such as nationality. 

At the heart of the analysis will be not just transnational jihadist movements like ISIS, but also peacebuilding initiatives like the ‘Israel Loves Iran’ Facebook page. Since its creation in 2011 the Facebook page has launched several campaigns based on inter-national dialogue, spin off into a fully fledged social movement, and prompted several imitations: from a direct ‘Iran Loves Israel’ response to the more recent ‘Ukraine loves Russia’ (and ‘Russia Loves Ukraine’). So, not just transnational hate is in the air, but love too: what kind of change they can produce is what I will try to understand.