Propaganda documents are inevitably brought to light on the computers and phones of accused jihadists. No matter what their profiles, they always have a huge number of religious texts and songs, and photos and videos promoting the ISIS ideology or communicating their commands, stored on their devices.
Furthermore, even though accounts of life in Syria are rare and difficult to verify, these often include references to continuous television broadcasts of propaganda images, particularly in the homes of women.
What do such images have to do with radicalization, that is, in inciting acts of terrorism?
This question has divided experts into two groups: those who say “everything”, describing an online auto-radicalization, and those who say “nothing”.
“We must move beyond the binary nature of this debate,” states Benjamin Ducol, Research Coordinator at the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRMV) in Montreal, Canada. “The Internet certainly plays a role, but it is not always the leading role.”
He goes on: “For young people searching for information, the Internet can be part of the radicalization process from the very beginning. Or it could play a role at a later stage,
in confirming growing convictions or in strengthening connections.”The main risk of the Internet, according to Duclos, is the fact that it allows people to enter a “cognitive bubble”.
“The Internet reinforces the ideas that one already has because, by means of social networks and algorithms, it automatically directs the user to content related to previous searches or to his contacts, excluding any opposing points of view.
"The Internet can thus confine people within one particular way of thinking.”
This problem applies to conspiracy theories as well as radicalization – two closely linked phenomena.“
The Internet is no better or worse than the social circles we have in real life,” suggests Serge Tisseron, a psychiatrist. “However, it exacerbates particular character traits.
"If you are curious, it will make you more so. But if you are withdrawn, it will make you withdraw even more into yourself or into 'pseudo-socialization' at the risk of being isolated within 'exclusive groups'".
Experts agree that, whether supported or increased by the Internet, the process of radicalization doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
“In order for radicalization to occur, there must be some kind of fertile ground for it in the individual: problems with identity, social discontent, learning difficulties, a sense of stigmatization,” Ducol explains.
"This kind of propaganda only works on people whose lives are difficult or painful.” ISIS propaganda material is becoming less easily accessible as platforms and state services are suppressing such content. In order to find propaganda videos and images, people have to search for them.
The pathological dimension of the radicalization process is therefore important. Tisseron points out that one of Islamic State’s propaganda tools is “24-7 psychologists”, who respond to fragile young people’s existential questions any time of the day or night…
People who are well balanced and at ease in their own lives and their society would not fall under the influence of ISIS propaganda.
For Tisseron, this is self-evident.
“If everyone who saw the horror film ‘Scream’ then became serial killers, we’d certainly know about it,” he says, irritated by the overly direct links that are often made between violent films and video games, and acts of violence.
He refers to a study that “has just demonstrated that, although the empathy levels of people who have just played a violent video game may be lower immediately afterward, things return to normal within a few hours".
Nonetheless, Tisseron acknowledges that people do become desensitized to violence.
“Some people watch violent videos over and over again because this somehow eases the violence they feel within themselves,” he explains. “They realize that others have the same impulses as they do.
"But in the end, this makes them worse as it results in desensitization, and violence becomes an acceptable way of sorting out problems. This makes violence feasible.”
Scientists are also interested in the screens themselves, not just in the content they display.
Following the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) sponsored a series of experiments. One was a study on the effect of “blue light” – the LED light emitted by mobile cell phones and computer screens – on behavior.
“We undertook some experiments on mice to see the extent to which excessive exposure to blue light, at times that were incompatible with the sleep cycle, increases the subject’s aggression,” explains researcher Virginie Laurent-Gydé.
Previously, other research had already demonstrated that exposure to blue light causes problems in sleeping and concentration and that it negatively affects mood and behavior.“
The cells in the retina affected by blue light are involved in the parts of the brain linked to cycles of sleep and wakefulness, to cognitive functioning, to memory, emotions, and aggression,” states Laurent-Gydé.In the recent trial of a jihadist cell, some members explained that they had spent the whole weekend closed up in an apartment, watching violent videos.
The prosecutor referred to this as a “retreat for apprentice jihadists” and “a gateway between Toulouse and Syria”.
The young men were sentenced to between fifteen months and six years in prison.
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