Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Information Warfare and Identity Formation: Fuel to Conflict Escalation on the International and Domestic Scene?
(I will not be taking the 2nd half of the course)

Introduction & Background:
Much has been written on the Social Networks of Russian “twitter-bots” and paid information warriors, as well as the ISIS propaganda machine. Analysis of how they operate through dense connections reinforcing one another to amplify their message, and fill any gaps that emerge as accounts may be banned or removed show the utility of SNA for understanding the nature of their behavior, and the success of their self-propagation. This paper will seek to bring the rich analysis exemplified in work on these two groups to bear on the understanding of developing political-extremist views in the United States, specifically those espoused by Cliven Bundy and often supporters of Donald Trump. Using the Circle of Equity Framework, as detailed below, two case study comparisons of Russia’s modern information warriors and ISIS’s online propaganda machine will be compared and contrasted and the conclusions further applied to the message and strategy of political-extremist movements in the United States.

Identity and the Circle of Equity Framework:
The central feature of each group’s strength comes from its ability to tap into a shared identity and associated ideology among its various adherents both deepening and spreading the core tenets of this identity. In order to do this successfully, leaders and contributors to each group’s message must communicate in a way that is recognized as legitimate by the other members of the group. Communication that is off message, either from new or less central members, or from groups trying to hijack the group’s social network and communication, are sidelined and removed, as they could potentially harm the group. This inherently means that certain ideas and styles are more central to each group than others for maintaining and building legitimacy as well as strengthening and expanding the group. To understand this complex rubric of legitimacy, the concept of the Circle of Equity will be borrowed from historian John Vander Lippe and sociologist Pinar Batur (“Nexus of Legitimization” publication forthcoming 2016).

The basic idea in this framework is that there are four distinct poles, or primary concepts, that constitute the social order:  Authority, Legitimacy, Equity, and Social Justice. Each pole is dependent upon the others and in constant contest for a greater stake in society. Authority depends on Legitimacy to maintain power, Legitimacy upon Social Justice determined by the Equity of society, which is maintained by Authority and so on again with no one pole completely independent of another. It is the contest and overlap between these four poles that creates the ups and downs and nuances to any society, as the balance between them may be different at any given time.

Each of these groups is essentially its own separate society, or subset social group of a larger society reacting to what it perceives as imbalances in this framework. Understanding this, and further using it to examine the messaging style of each group allows for a greater understanding of each group’s identity, how this is propagated, and potentially, whom might be susceptible to its message.

Data Collection:
Data on Russian information warfare and ISIS propaganda networks are heavily studied at this time. Sources such as the George Washington University Program on Extremism, NATO, and myriad independent researchers have produced ample analysis of these social networks, enough that acquiring additional data for this paper should be unnecessary. A thorough review of these studies, and a synthesis of their conclusions using the Circle of Equity framework should be sufficient.

Little work has been done specifically on the social networks emerging from the rhetoric of the US presidential campaign around issues central to politically-extremist views, though much has been published on the possible causes of it. As a starting point for data collection, news around the Bundy ranch stand-off in 2014 and the Malheur National Wildlife refuge will be examined to build a network map of names. Further news and publicly available social media content will be examined to look for additional links and common phrases for deeper investigation of Twitter, or Facebook data, pending appropriate permissions. Overlap in these phrases with statements from politicians associated with this movement, including their tweets and other available social media content, will be included. These will be synthesized in the same fashion as the Russian information warriors’ activities and ISIS propagandists in order to be labeled appropriately in the Circle of Equity framework.

Tweets and comments, along with common phrases will be weighted as to how much they adhere to each of the four poles of the framework, and assigned to that pole (Authority, Legitimacy, Equity, and Social Justice) to which they most strongly relate. Once this scoring is done, a two-mode network consisting of these phrases and comments and the list of names compiled from research will be set up. An additional one-mode dataset where the lines between these individuals will be the phrases and comments will also be examined.


From a cursory look, each group appears to have a different goal driving its use of propaganda. The Russian information warriors appear to be using the messages to confuse and slow their opponents and sow discord, as well as maintain a certain level of cohesion back home. ISIS appears to be using its messaging primarily to gain followers and esteem. In the US, outside of the election competition itself, messaging around the types of political-extremist ideas exemplified by the Bundy family appears to be aimed at making an alternative/downtrodden voice heard and expressing divergent opinions from the main stream, as well as to coordinate like-minded individuals. It will be interesting to see if these apparent different goals lead to different uses of communication across networks, as well as a different balancing of the Circle of Equity across their messaging.

1 comment:

Christopher Tunnard said...

You've clearly done some thinking about this. While I'm very familiar with the SNA work being done on Russian bots and on ISIS by GWU and others, and I think there's clear potential for it in the Bundy case, it's not quite clear how the Circle of Equity framework and network analysis interact. You jump right into the examples; if you had a clear question that you were trying to answer, one that was then connected to SNA measures and what they could show, that would be helpful. In other words, what would comparing these networks tell us about their nature(s)?

You need to unpack some of the points and examples you use to isolate the threads that will link them. If you ever want to do this, let me know.