By Matteo Vergani and Ana-Maria Bliuc.
Are the psychological factors driving ISIS’s mobilisation in Western countries different from those characteristic of other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda? Does the target audience of ISIS’s English-language online propaganda differ from that of al-Qaeda? If so, then how?
In our new journal article, we examine these questions by analysing the language of Dabiq and Inspire using computerised linguistic analysis software designed to capture psychological, social and cognitive dimensions. Our aim was to identify psychological differences between these groups (Study 1); then, to experimentally test the processes identified through this initial analysis in a study on an American general population sample (Study 2).
The findings tell us much about the psychology behind the mobilising propaganda of the ‘new terrorism’: the computerised linguistic analysis shows that the language used by ISIS in Dabiq is underpinned by higher levels of authoritarianism and focus on religion than al-Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. The follow-up experimental study confirms that being more religious and more authoritarian predicts more positive attitudes towards the language of ISIS, but not towards the language of al-Qaeda.
Taken together, the findings suggest that ISIS’ followers in Western contexts are likely to be characterised by a higher degree of religiousness and authoritarianism than those of al-Qaeda. This is consistent with previous qualitative research on the ideology and mobilisation of the two jihadist groups, and also with the choice of ideological and religious targets of ISIS-inspired home-grown terrorist attacks in the USA, Europe and Australia.
We argue that ISIS-related mobilisation requires high levels of authoritarianism and religiousness to counterbalance the high psychological costs on its followers – psychological costs due to the members being aware and supportive of the group’s adoption of extreme violence, especially against other Muslims (which al-Qaeda has criticised).
Our study may also open new directions in the study of terrorism from a methodological viewpoint. Collecting primary data through surveys and interviews from participants who are involved with terrorist groups is a nearly impossible task (unless one is speaking with imprisoned perpetrators). However, by using tools specifically designed to capture hidden or implicit psychological processes from the analysis of terrorist groups’ linguistic products , we adopt a more sustainable alternative to this approach, which can be easily replicated by other researchers.
We complemented this approach with experimental data from a general American sample —a population that is likely to be similar to the actual audience targeted by the terrorist groups’ online English language magazines, that is, from an English-speaking Western country high in computer literacy. We placed content from the two magazines in a science fiction context, so that we could maintain the same language used by the terrorist groups. Then, we asked the participants to rate their attitudes towards the text, and we tested whether the participants’ traits and orientations predicted positive attitudes towards the two types of text.
Our article expands on a long line of studies on psychological dimensions that drive collective action mobilisation, to investigate a crucial aspect in the study of terrorism, that is, the relationship between the psychological dimensions of terrorist groups and their target audience.
Our findings show that ISIS online propaganda may be more appealing to people who have the same underlying psychological orientations as the terrorist group – psychological orientations which distinguish them from al-Qaeda. It is possible (and plausible) that this psychological alignment between ISIS as a collective entity and their target audience has been a key driver of their appeal for Western recruits.
From the perspective of combating terrorism, this can mean both good and bad news. It is bad news because it highlights the power of online communication (in this case in the form of terrorist propaganda) to reach the ‘right audience’ across national and cultural boundaries , which makes the task of countering terrorism so much harder. However, it is also good news because, if only people with particular orientations are likely to be attracted to ISIS propaganda, it means that there is a limited pool of potential supporters.
Moreover, if we better understand ISIS communication strategies, the psychological orientations of their target audience, and the connections between these, we can design interventions which are better tailored for increased efficacy.
Matteo Vergani is a postdoctoral researcher at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Australia. His primary research interests are political violence, its causes, impact on society, and the study of what could prevent it. Twitter: @teoverga
Ana-Maria Bliuc is a senior lecturer in Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University, Australia. Her research is at the intersection between political and social psychology with a focus on identity, intergroup conflict, radicalisation, and social media. Twitter: @a_mBliuc