Sporer finds ISIL supporters promote justifications of terrorist group’s violence on Twitter

Sympathizers of the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL) use Twitter to promote justifications of mass casualty violence perpetrated against civilians by the terrorist group, according to a new study led by Karyn Sporer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine.

University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers Michael Logan, Gina Ligon and Doug Derrick also collaborated on the study, titled “#JeSuisParis?: An appeal to hypocrisy and justifications for mass casualty violence,” and published in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology (pp. 57–81).

The researchers utilized Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s “techniques of neutralization” theory to interpret how English-speaking soft-sympathizers of ISIL justify violence perpetrated by the terrorist group. 

“Unlike foreign fighters who travel to Iraq and Syria and individuals who radicalize at home and engage in lone actor attacks, soft-sympathizers spread ISIL’s message by leveraging social media,” the researchers write. “Soft-sympathizers take advantage of social media platforms to propagate ISIL’s message on a global scale so that ISIL’s ideology and tactics can be recognized, normalized, and accepted by the masses.”

These neutralization techniques can include denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners. According to the theory, criminal offenders and juvenile delinquents use these justifications to neutralize in advance any potential guilt related to their deviant behavior and evade moral constraints that usually would prevent people from engaging in such behavior.

The team collected tweets associated with ISIL-affiliated accounts that were posted within 24 hours of three high-profile ISIL-attributed terrorist attacks: the Nov. 13, 2015 Paris coordinated attack; the June 6, 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub attack; and the July 14, 2016 cargo truck ramming in Nice.

The researchers analyzed the tweets with a word-by-word and line-by-line coding approach to highlight complex and meaningful terminology, then used the data to compare and contrast emerging themes. 

Much of the content they found focused on justifications for terrorism and mass casualty violence, including celebrating the events and giving reasons for why or how such violence was justified in the eyes of sympathizers. 

“Condemnation of the condemners” was a common neutralization technique used by soft-sympathizers to portray violence by Western armed forces as equal to or worse than violence by the Islamic State, according to the researchers. This took the form of claims of comparable violence, selective silence and differential humanity. Comparable violence refers to sympathizers comparing violence committed by ISIL with violence committed by other armed forces. Selective silence involves sympathizers highlighting general silence and lack of attention to victims after attacks in predominantly Muslim countries and equating it to a lack of empathy with non-Western countries and Muslim victims. The idea of differential humanity refers to sympathizers’ perceptions that attention and empathy are directly tied to victims’ perceived humanity and that condemners of the Islamic State do not apply the same concept of humanity to Muslim victims as to non-Muslim victims. 

“An important component of this condemnation is the idea that Western armed forces had long been killing innocent civilians (i.e., since the war in the Middle East) and that, as a result, the Americans and the French were responsible for more civilian casualties than ISIL,” according to the team. 

And while soft-sympathizers made a point to “discredit ISIL’s condemners,” at the same time they seemed to “accept the immorality of ISIL’s own tactics,” the study found. “Together, these claims intended to display the perceived hypocrisy of ISIL condemners, to undermine the moral credibility of the West, and to serve as the foundation for justifying ISIL-attributed violence.” 

These findings have possible implications for counter-terrorism strategic communications — the researchers note that the “tacit acceptance” of atrocities by soft-sympathizers could be amplified to lead to disagreement among their followers. Messaging campaign strategies that depend on identity-based appeals rather than rational appeals could be particularly effective, according to the study. 

“In order to effectively counteract the mechanisms discovered, thoughtful, consistent, factual, influential and voluminous messaging is required,” the researchers say. “Beyond this, the deliverer of these messages is crucial and must have credibility in the community.”

Future research could continue to unpack how neutralization techniques manifest around terror attacks, and explore the extent to which other techniques are utilized. 

Contact: Cleo Barker, 207.581.3729, cleo.barker@maine.edu