The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace
by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara
Oxford University Press, 2015
Issue #12 of Inspire magazine came out in the spring of 2014, in the form of a 37 page-long .pdf file. Published by al-Qaeda, Inspire features opinion writing, interviews, and instructions for making bombs, all in English. There’s professional-grade graphic design. Near the back, the magazine also includes a poem. It begins:
To understand the present u must study the past,
To prevent more reaction u better make change fast.
2007 this bloody chapter began,
During the invasion of Irāq and Afghanistān.
Inspire launched in 2010. It’s only available online. Reading it, you feel like you’re encountering not just a piece of propaganda, but an entire genre, characterized by paranoia, casual references to violence, and an obsessive contempt for authority. All of this is expressed with a kind of ironic swagger. “Inspire Magazine’s goal is to empower Muslim youth,” explains the introduction to a bomb-building tutorial in Issue 12. “In this section we give you strength, power and intelligence. Believe me, using car bombs gives you all that.”
Inspire is just one of the many digital tools that violent religious groups employ. By one recent estimate, ISIS supporters now operate at least 46,000 Twitter accounts. It reaches potential recruits through platforms like Tumblr. Al-Qaeda operatives post videos online. Issues of Inspire appear, again and again, on the hard drives of terror suspects and plotters (Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly used instructions from the magazine to build their Boston Marathon bomb). So do the digitized sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike. Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian, spent years haunting Christian nationalist and white supremacist blogs and chatrooms before murdering 77 people on a single day in 2011.
Is the Web somehow implicated in all this violence? Many of these attackers are millennials, and one begins to feel that our cultural anxieties about terror dovetail quite neatly with our anxieties about the Internet. In both cases, there’s the feeling that it’s easier than ever to come unmoored from real life (whatever exactly that is) and drift off into some private, intangible niche—a World of Warcraft avatar, a network of pseudonymous friends, or, perhaps, the encompassing ideology of a violent religious fringe.
The link between the Internet and radicalism is scary, unprecedented, and vague. As a result, it is ripe grounds for hyperbolic punditry. So let us celebrate the The Devil’s Long Tail for the rarity that it is: a serious, scholarly book about extreme behaviors on the Internet. Its authors, the British academics David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara, study politics on the Web. For them, the question is not whether the Internet is a useful tool for violent extremists—it definitely is—but whether there’s something distinctive about digital technology that drives radicalization, or makes radical positions turn violent more readily.
Stevens and O’Hara are too constrained in their analysis to fully answer those questions. But even their partial analysis is meticulous and important. Above all, The Devil’s Long Tail forces us to confront some pervasive, poorly founded assumptions about contemporary acts of terror: namely, that radicalism stems from the spread of dangerous ideas, and that the Web somehow changes certain fundamental dynamics of human society. The Internet may be a tool for violent extremists. But it alone can neither create nor eliminate them. “There is no ‘solution’ to the problem of violent religious extremist,” Stevens and O’Hara conclude. “The violent are always with us.”
The Devil’s Long Tail may be an unflashy book, but it frames its central questions with the help of a TED-talk-friendly concept—the long tail thesis. Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson coined the term “long tail” in 2004 to describe what he saw as a key difference between online and offline commerce. Anderson observed that store space online is unlimited, unlike in a physical store. As a result, he argued, the web makes it easier to sell products that are esoteric, fringe, or niche.
If a physical shop has to choose between stocking Taylor Swift’s 2012 album “Red” or the Tom Tom Club’s self-titled 1981 release, they’re almost certainly going to find a bigger customer base for Swift. On iTunes, it’s possible to sell both. The Taylor Swift fans are happy, but there’s more room for Tom Tom Club fandom to develop and thrive. “There’s still demand for big cultural buckets, but they’re no longer the only market,” Anderson wrote in his 2006 book, The Long Tail. “The hits now compete with an infinite number of niche markets, of any size.”
The idea has a kind of intuitive appeal, in that it confirms two widely held cultural beliefs about the Internet. The first is that the Internet is driving the growth of weird subcultures (kids these days!). The second is that the Internet elevates the marginal—that it’s a tool not only for those with wayward artistic tastes, but also for political dissidents, protesters, and others with limited access to traditional media. This is the democratizing case for the Internet, and it’s one that we hear repeatedly in the wake of major social upheavals, such as the first months of the Arab Spring, when protesters in Tahrir Square organized their campaign using social media.
But as Stevens and O’Hara remind us, the people organizing on the fringe aren’t always so friendly. If you view the Web as a marketplace for everything, including ideological positions, then religious radicalism is certainly a niche product. “When the marketplace of religious ideas moves online, the hypothesis is that it will manifest properties of online markets,” Stevens and O’Hara write. “In particular, minority views will be better catered for.” You no longer have to be in a major city to encounter, say, a community of al-Qaeda sympathizers. They’re as accessible in Roanoke and Grand Rapids as they are in London and Paris. The devil, too, can have a long tail.
But does it? Stevens and O’Hara argue, convincingly, that the long tail thesis probably doesn’t do much to explain religious radicalism today. For one thing, the empirical evidence for the long tail thesis has proven to be spotty. The Web does make it easier to sell niche goods. But it also includes systems of recommendation and networking that draw people back toward mainstream ideas. In the case of political countercultures online, the Internet does offer a new forum for fringe players—but also new tools of surveillance and broadcast for those who are already in power. The technology cuts both ways.
A bigger shortcoming is that the long tail thesis does little to explain where these tastes come from in the first place. Why do I prefer the Tom Tom Club to Taylor Swift? Or, more relevantly, why does someone prefer the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki to those of a less violent cleric?
One possibility, of course, is that the Internet helps create new preferences. In market terms, it actually manufactures demand. A teenager goes online, and comes into contact with new, dangerous ideas. These ideas transform the individual from a mild-mannered thinker into a violent extremist. Stevens and O’Hara call this the DAM (dumb-and-malleable) thesis. The idea is that people on the religious fringe are brainwashed by “charismatic leaders preying on the emotionally and mentally vulnerable.”
The authors of The Devil’s Long Tail have little patience for these ideas, which, they decide, butt up against “a feature about religious belief that causes a significant problem for the DAM thesis: namely, the facts.” There’s little evidence that religious people are dumber than non-religious people. Even as the world modernizes and globalizes, religion persists. And there are disturbingly rational reasons someone might seek out a radical ideological position. None of these details, Stevens and O’Hara point out, support the DAM thesis.
In the specific context of the Internet, it might be better to call DAM the Little Red Riding Hood thesis of radicalization. Essentially, the Web is excellent hunting ground for wolves. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s elegantly engineered for predatory marketing. Young people—our Little Red Riding Hoods—wander onto the Internet and fall into the clutches of these mongers of dangerous ideas. Next minute, they’re off to Syria.
Bad ideas, corrupting the youth: this may sound like a caricature, but it’s the basis for quite a lot of serious policy interventions aimed at Internet radicalization. The French government runs online ad campaigns to discourage would-be militants. The Netherlands has developed a program designed for “tackling the content of the terrorists’ narrative.” A major United States government document in 2006 described the war on terror as “a battle of ideas.”
Ideas matter. But young people aren’t passive sheep. When it comes to joining a radical group, Stevens and O’Hara argue, “the reasons are not primarily spiritual or theological, but rather the comparatively mundane ones of social goods and belonging.” Radical groups offer a tight-knit social group, a strong sense of purpose, and social power. You can seek those social goods without being dumb, malleable, and brainwashed. And you can hold onto them even if the intellectual justification doesn’t quite hang together.
To return to our analogy, Little Red Riding Hood isn’t taken unawares. Posting signs that warn, “Hey, wolves are here, watch out!”—which, essentially, is what government counter-propaganda does—is unlikely to be effective when Little Red Riding is in the forest expressly because she wants to find a wolf.
It’s also possible that Internet culture makes people likelier to want the kinds of social perks that some radical groups offer. Stevens and O’Hara suggest that digital culture could be making us lonelier and more isolated. They wonder if the Internet engenders a kind of digital anomie—a condition in which “the individual feels purposeless, uninvolved in wider society,” and outside of social norms. Under those conditions, they speculate, some young people might heed the call of ideological violence. Cut off from mainstream culture, they may fall into narrow, self-reinforcing subcultures—what the scholar Cass Sunstein calls an echo chamber effect.
To test this idea of anomie, The Devil’s Long Tail draws on the work of Sherry Turkle, an MIT scholar who studies relationships in the digital era. Turkle is a prominent critic of digital life, which she sees as isolating. Stevens and O’Hara apply Turkle’s ideas to their model of radicalization, to see if it all fits.
Unfortunately, this focus on Turkle is baffling. Of all the commentators on Internet culture, why did they choose write so much about Turkle? It’s not clear, especially because Stevens and O’Hara seem to have little regard for her work, which is fairly polemical and anecdote-driven. The basement-dwelling chatroom radical is mostly an illusion. “Our online friends tend to be our offline friends as well,” Stevens and O’Hara caution. There’s ample data to back them up. “Indeed, the division between our online and offline lives is not easy to draw.”
As a springboard to investigate the effects of Internet use on the mind, it’s not clear why The Devil’s Long Tail focuses on this one vague, poorly supported notion of digital anomie. And, in doing so, Stevens and O’Hare avoid a major area where Internet culture is entangled with violent extremism: the world of online celebrity. Slick videos have become an ISIS hallmark. Both Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse school shooter, and Amedy Coulibaly, who took more than a dozen hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris this past January, carried GoPro cameras during their attacks. The light, portable cameras are popular among extreme sports enthusiasts, who post their videos to YouTube. Coulibaly reportedly recorded footage during his standoff with the police. Merah posted graphic video of his attacks while on the run.
Terror is a route to cultural significance and celebrity. And there’s no question that the Web has reshaped the dynamics of celebrity in our culture. Is there a connection here? The book needs some exploration of the issue. Still, Stevens and O’Hara have done a service, in that they help refocus the conversation away from the narrative of brainwashed-teens-online, and toward a more disturbing reality: namely, that extremist positions, even violent ones, may offer something real and enticing to many young people.
The Internet, of course, can help things along. But “we should always remember that technology does not cause violence or terrorism; it may facilitate it, like roads, telephones or Hallowe’en masks, all of which can be and have been used with profit by terrorist groups,” Stevens and O’Hara write. You can fret about Twitter or spar over doctrine, but you’ll just be obscuring far older, more entrenched issues at play. In mass society, religious radicalism is a way to wield power. As long as people want that particular form of power, they will find ways to get it.
So what should governments do? The answer, perhaps, at least when it comes to online radicalization, is disconcerting: very little, if anything at all. Bumbling efforts at counter-propaganda seem to do little, failing to address the individual desires that, according to Stevens and O’Hara, drive young people to radical positions. Massive programs of surveillance and restriction curtail the freedoms of the many in order to inconvenience a few. “The hardest thing for a politician to do is ‘nothing,’” Stevens and O’Hara write at the end of their book. It’s sobering advice. And, absent a compelling reason otherwise, it may be the best we have.
Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C., and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches magazine, where he co-produces The Cubit.