Islamist violent extremism and anarchist violent extremism

Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:

  1. It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
  2. It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
  3. It’s the result of psychological disturbance in its adherents.

In the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Marc Sageman argued vigorously for the first explanation, pointing out that those involved in al Qaeda at the time were well-educated and at least middle class, were religious, and showed no signs of psychological disturbances. There was considerable push back to his arguments, mostly promoting Explanation 3 but, in the end, most Western governments came around to his view.

In the decade since, most Western countries have slipped into Explanation 2. I have argued that this is largely because these countries are post-Christian, and so most of those in the political establishment have post-modern ideas about religion as a facade for power. They project this world view onto the Middle Eastern world, and so cannot see that Explanation 1 is even possible — to be religious is to be naive at best and stupid at worst. This leads to perennial underestimation of islamist violent extremist goals and willingness to work towards them.

It’s widely agreed that the motivation for Daesh is a combination of Explanations 1 and 2, strategically Explanation 1, but tactically Explanation 2.

The new feature, however, is that Daesh’s high-volume propaganda is reaching many psychologically troubled individuals in Western countries who find its message to be an organising principle and a pseudo-community.

“Lone wolf” attacks can therefore be divided into two categories: those motivated by Explanation 1, and those motivated by Explanation 3, and the latter are on the rise. Marc Sageman has written about the extent to which foiled “plots” in the U.S. come very close to entrapment of vulnerable individuals who imagine that they would like to be terrorists, and take some tiny initial step, only to find an FBI agent alongside them, urging them to take it further. (M. Sageman, The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, 565-580)

Understanding these explanations is critical to efforts at de-radicalization. Despite extensive efforts, I have seen very little evidence that de-radicalization actually works. But it make a difference what you think you’re de-radicalizing from. Addressing Explanation 1 seems to be the most common strategy (“your view of Islam is wrong, see the views of respected mainstream Imams, jihad means personal struggle”).

Addressing Explanation 2 isn’t usually framed as de-radicalization but, if the violence is instrumental, then instrumental arguments would help (“it will never work, the consequences are too severe to be worth it”).

Addressing Explanation 3 is something we know how to do, but this explanation isn’t the popular one at present, and there are many pragmatic issues about getting psychological help to people who don’t acknowledge that they need it.

Reading the analysis of anarchist violence in the period from about 1880 to around 1920 has eerie similarities to the analysis of islamist violence in the past 15 years, both in the popular press, and in the more serious literature. It’s clear that there were some (but only a very few) who were in love with anarchist ideology (Explanation 1); many more who saw it as a way (the only way) to change society for the better (Explanation 2) — one of the popular explanations for the fading away of anarchist attacks is that other organisations supporting change developed; but there were also large numbers of troubled individuals who attached themselves to anarchist violence for psychological reasons. It’s largely forgotten how common anarchist attacks became during these few decades. Many were extremely successful — assassinations of a French president, an American president, an Austrian Empress, an Italian king — and, of course, the Great War was inadvertently triggered by an assassination of an Archduke.

Western societies had little more success stemming anarchist violence than we are having with islamist violence. The Great War probably had as much effect as anything, wiping out the demographic most associated with the problem. We will have to come up with a better solution.

(There’s a nice recap of anarchist violence and its connections to islamist violence here.)

Cybersecurity training — the contrasts

I think there must be wide agreement that skills in the cybersecurity domain are highly valuable in the 21st century, but also in extremely short supply.

It’s interesting to compare the number of graduate-level programs focused on cybersecurity in the U.S. and in Canada. A quick search in the U.S. finds that more than 30 colleges (probably a lot more) offer at least a Master’s degree specialising in cybersecurity. There are also at least a handful in the U.K..

The identical search in Canada finds exactly zero such programs (there is one, but it’s not open to civilians). In fact, there are almost no graduate programs in Canada that offer even a single course in cybersecurity.

Country                    Population                Number of programs

U.S.                        319,000,000                      30+

Canada                     30,000,000                        0

U.K.                         64,000,000                        6+

Australia                   23,000,000                       3+

New Zealand              4,000,000                        2+

Part of the problem is structural. The Canadian federal government has the greatest interest in a well-trained cybersecurity pool (to supply the Communications Security Establishment Canada and to provide a path to hardening infrastructure, finance, and high-tech businesses). But Canadian universities are provincially funded, and the provinces don’t have much interest in cybersecurity.

The differences between the U.S. and Canada are stark, and make it clear that Canada is going to have a hard time pulling its weight in the Five Eyes collaboration. And it’s a difficult problem to solve because of the need to bootstrap: there aren’t enough faculty to teach and do research in cybersecurity, because there aren’t enough opportunities to learn how to.

How not to win an election (Canadian leaders economic debate)

I’ve written about what kind of language politicians should use if they want to win elections. The Canadian party leaders economic debate last night was a text book example of how not to do it.

Here’s the playbook that they were apparently working from:

  • On no account be positive about anything. Rose coloured glasses are actively dangerous when talking about economic issues, because expectations never become reality in this domain.
  • Make sure that you provide all of the details of your economic policies (“Our plan will raise fiscal/tax/payments by 2.3% over 27 months”) but on no account tie them to real people or any aspect of their lives.
  • Compare your policies to those of other parties by first explaining the other party’s plan and THEN explaining why it’s a bad idea. Viewers have long attention spans and are probably taking notes anyway.
  • Make sure that viewers understand the smallest differences between your plan and the competition (“our great plan is 2.3% over 27 months, their appalling plan is only 2.2% and over only 26 months”) — the Mr Rumbold Strategy.
  • If you have a good talking point, make sure you use it at least six times (eight would be better).
  • Talk at the same time as everyone else. This helps viewers hone their cocktail party skills.
  • Make sure to refer to every previous action of the other parties going back to the 1930s. Viewers want to consider track record of the long dead when deciding which party to vote for.
  • Change the names that you call people at random moments — use their surnames for a while and then switch to first names, and then switch back.
  • Make sure that when you’re using talking points, you’re fluent, but when you are going extempore, you use lots of “ums” and “ers” so viewers can easily tell which is which.

And if you want to put on a debate, here some useful tips:

  • Preface the debate with 15 mins of punditry by members of the sponsoring organisation, even if they have no television skills.
  • Make sure that the background is artificial and creates edges around the debate participants. Save electricity by using as little lighting as possible. Use dark colours — after all the economic picture is gloomy.
  • Forbid the “moderator” from doing anything other than reading out the questions.
  • Make sure that all of the microphones are live at all times. On no account put microphone controls where the producer can access them.

I expect that, after the performances of everyone involved last night and in the prep, there will be a huge demand from the U.S. candidates to hire these people away for more large scale campaigns.

Results from second Republican debate

Regular readers will know that, especially in a crowded marketplace, politicians try to stand out and attract votes by presenting themselves in the best possible light that they can. This is a form of deception, and carries the word-use signals associated with deception, so it can be measured using some straightforward linguistic analysis.

Generally speaking, the candidate who achieves the highest level of this persona deception wins, so candidates try as hard as they can. There are, however, a number of countervailing forces. First, different candidates have quite different levels of ability to put on this kind of persona (Bill Clinton excelled at it). Second, it seems to be quite exhausting, so that candidates have trouble maintaining it from day to day. Third, the difficulty depends on the magnitude of the difference between the previous role and the new one that is the target of a campaign: if a vice-president runs for president, he is necessarily lumbered with the persona that’s been on view in the previous job; if not, it’s easier to present a new persona and make it seem compelling (e.g. Obama in 2008). Outsiders therefore have a greater opportunity to re-invent themselves. Fourth, it depends on the content of what is said: a speech that’s about pie in the sky can easily present a new persona, while one that talks about a candidate’s track record cannot, because it drags the previous persona into at least the candidate’s mind.

Some kinds of preparation can help to improve the persona being presented — a good actor has to be able to do this. But politicians aren’t usually actors manqué so the levels of persona deception that they achieve from day to day emerge from their subconscious and so provide fine-grained insights into how they’re perceiving themselves.

The results from the second round of debates are shown in the figure:


The red and green points represent artificial debate participants who use all of the words of the deception model at high frequency and low frequency respectively.

Most of the candidates fall into the band between these two extremes, with Rand Paul with the lowest level of persona deception (which is what you might expect). The highest levels of deception are Christie and Fiorina, who had obviously prepped extensively and were regarded as having done well; and Jindal, who is roughly at the same level, but via completely different word use.

Comparing these to the results from the first round of debates, there are two obvious changes: Trump has moved from being at the low end of the spectrum to being in the upper-middle; and Carson has moved from having very different language patterns from all of the other candidates to being quite similar to most of them. This suggests that both of them are learning to be better politicians (or being sucked into the political machine, depending on your point of view).

The candidates in the early debate have clustered together on the left hand side of the figure, showing that there was a different dynamic in the two different debates. This is an interesting datum about the strength of verbal mimicry.

The secret of Trump’s success

Looking at US presidential elections through the lens of empirical investigation of word use shows that there’s a pattern of language that is associated with electoral success. Those who use it win, and the difference in the intensity of the pattern correlates well with the margin of victory.

The effective pattern is, in a way, intuitive: use positive language, eliminate negative language completely, talk in the abstract rather than about specific policies, and pay no attention to the other candidates.

In other words, a successful candidate should appear “statesmanlike”.

Candidates find it extremely difficult to use this approach — they feel compelled to compare themselves to the other candidates, dragging in negativity, and to explain the cleverness of their policies. Only incumbent presidents, in our investigation, were able to use this language pattern reliably.

I listened to some of Trump’s speech in Texas last night, and I’ve come to see that the media are completely and utterly wrong about why he is doing so well in the polls. It’s not that he’s tapping into a vein of disaffection with the political system; it is that he’s using this language model. In previous cycles, it’s only been incumbent presidents who’ve had the self-confidence to use it, but Trump, of course, has enough self-confidence to start a retail business selling it.

Let’s look at the components of the model:

Positive language: Trump’s positivity is orders of magnitude above that of the other candidates, and in two ways. First, he is relentlessly positive about the U.S. and about the future (catchphrase: “we can do better”). Second, he’s positive about almost everyone he mentions (catchphrase: “he’s a great guy”).

Negative language: Trump doesn’t avoid negativity altogether, but he uses it cleverly. First, his individual negative targets are not the other candidates (by and large) but pundits — Karl Rove and George Will were mentioned last night, but I doubt if more than 1% of the audience could have identified either in a line-up; so this kind of negativity acts as a lightning rod, without making Trump seem mean. And the negative references to others lack the bitterness that often bleeds through in the negative comments of more typical candidates. Second, when he mentions negative aspects of the Obama administration and its policies and actions, he does it be implication and contrast (“that’s not what I would do”, “I could do better”).

Vision not policies: the media cannot stand that Trump doesn’t come out with detailed policy plans, but it’s been clear for a while that voters don’t pay a lot of attention to policies. They’ve learned that (a) there’s a huge gap between what a president can want to do and what he can actually make happen, and (b) policies are generated with one eye on the polls and focus groups, so they often aren’t something that the candidate has much invested in doing in the first place. [It’s incredible that Secretary Clinton ran focus groups to prep her “apology”, which was actually a meta-apology for not having apologized better or earlier.]

Trump has one huge “policy” advantage — he isn’t beholden to donors, and so is freer of the behind-the-scenes pressure that most candidates face. In the present climate, this has to be a huge selling point.

Ignore the other candidates: Trump doesn’t quite do this (and it gets him into trouble), But he’s learning fast — in last night’s speech, he only mentioned a handful of his competitors and his comments about all of them were positive.

If Trump continues to give this kind of speech, then the more exposure he gets, the more voters are going to like him. I remain doubtful that he will be the Republican nominee, but I don’t see him flaming out any time soon. Even if he makes some serious gaffe, he’ll apologize in seconds and move on (in contrast to Clinton who seems determined to make acute issues into chronic ones).

Republican candidates’ debate: persona deception results

Here are results from the first Republican debate, combining the early and prime-time material into a single corpus.

There’s more detail about the theory in the previous post, but the basic story is: an election campaign is a socially sanctioned exercise in deception; factual deception is completely discounted and so doesn’t matter, but the interesting question is the deception required of each candidate to present themselves as better than they really are; and the candidate who can implement this kind of deception best tends to be the winner. Note that, although deception often has negative connotations, there are many situations where it is considered appropriate, allowed, or condoned: negotiation, dating, selling and marketing — and campaigns are just a different kind of marketing. Sometimes this is called, in the political context, “spin” but it’s really more subtle than that.

The basic plot show the variation in level of deception, aggregated over all of the turns by each candidate during the debate. The line is the deception axis; the further towards the red end, the stronger the deception. Other variation is caused by variations in the use of different words of the model — different styles.


These results aren’t terribly surprising. Both Fiorina and Huckabee have broad media experience and so are presumably good at presenting a facade appropriate to many different occasions (and no wonder Fiorina is widely regarded as having “won” the early debate). Trump has low levels of deception — that’s partly because he doesn’t bother with a facade, and partly because the more well-known a person is, the harder it is to successfully present a different facade.

Note, again unsurprisingly, that Carson, while in the middle of the pack on the deception axis, has quite different language patterns from any of the others. That’s partly opportunity — he wasn’t asked the same kind of questions — but partly not being a professional politician.

deceptdocszoomThis figure zooms in to show the structure of the pack in the centre. There isn’t a lot of difference, which reinforces the takeaway that these debates didn’t make a lot of different, positively or negatively, for most of the candidate.

The contributions of language to the ranking can be looked at by drilling down into this table:

wordpatternThe rows are candidates in alphabetical order (Fiorina 5, Huckabee 8, Perry 13, Trump 15), the columns are 42 of the words of the deception model that were actually used in decreasing order of overall frequency, and the blocks are darker in colour when a word used by a candidate makes a greater contribution to the model. The top words were: I, but,  going,  my,  me, or, go, take, look, lead, run, rather, without, move, and hate. So Huckabee’s high score comes primarily from low use of first-person singular pronouns, while Fiorina’s comes from heavier use of lower-ranked words that most others didn’t use. There are qualitative similarities between Fiorina’s language and Carson’s (row 2).

In previous presidential election campaigns, the candidate who managed to present the best facade in the strongest way was the winner.

A separate question is: what kind of facade should a candidate choose? We have empirical results about that too. A winning persona is characterised by: ignoring policy issues completely, ruthlessly eliminating all negative language, using plenty of positive language, and ignoring the competing candidates. Although, at one level, this seems obvious, no candidate and no campaign can bring themselves to do it until their second presidential campaign. But not only does it predict the winner, the margin of victory is also predictable from it as well.

Canadian election 2015: Leaders’ debate

Regular readers will recall that I’m interested in elections as examples of the language and strategy of influence — what we learn can be applied to understanding jihadist propaganda.

The Canadian election has begun, and last night was the first English-language debate by the four party leaders: Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Thomas Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau. Party leaders do not get elected directly, so all four participants had trouble wrapping their minds around whether they were speaking as party spokespeople or as “presidential” candidates.

Deception is a critical part of election campaigns, but not in the way that people tend to think. Politicians make factual misstatements all the time, but it seems that voters have already baked this in to their assessments, and so candidates pay no penalty when they are caught making such statements. This is annoying to the media outlets that use fact checking to discover and point out factual misstatements, because nobody cares, and they can’t figure out why.

Politicians also try to present themselves as smarter, wiser, and generally more qualified for the position for which they’re running, and this is a much more important kind of deception. In a fundamental sense, this is what an election campaign is — a Great White Lie. Empirically, the candidate who is best at this kind of persona deception tends to win.

Therefore, measuring levels of deception is a good predictor of the outcome of an election. Recall that deception in text is signalled by (a) reduced use of first-person singular pronouns, (b) reduced use of so-called exclusive words (“but”, “or”) that introduce extra complexity, (c) increased use of action verbs, and (d) increased use of negative-emotion words. This model can be applied by counting the number of occurrences of these words, adding them up (with appropriate signs), and computing a score for each document. But it turns out to be much more effective to add a step that weights each word by how much it varies in the set of documents being considered, and computing this weighted score.

So, I’ve taken the statements by each of the four candidates last night, and put them together into four documents. Then I’ve applied this deception model to these four documents, and ranked the candidates by levels of deceptiveness (in this socially acceptable election-campaign meaning of deceptiveness).

wordseffectsThis figure shows, in the columns, the intensity of the 35 model words that were actually used, in decreasing frequency order. The rows are the four leaders in alphabetical order: Harper, May, Mulcair, Trudeau; and the colours are the intensity of the use of each word by each leader. The top few words are: I, but, going, go, look, take, my, me, taking, or. But remember, a large positive value means a strong contribution of this word to deception, not necessarily a high frequency — so the brown bar in column 1 of May’s row indicates a strong contribution coming from the word “I”, which actually corresponds to low rates of “I”.

deceptdocsThis figure shows a plot of the variation among the four leaders. The line is oriented from most deceptive to least deceptive; so deception increases from the upper right to the lower left.

Individuals appear in different places because of different patterns of word use. Each leader’s point can be projected onto this line to generate a (relative) deception score.

May appears at the most deceptive end of the spectrum. Trudeau and Harper appear at almost the same level, and Mulcair appears significantly lower. The black point represents an artificial document in which each word of the model is used at one standard deviation above neutral, so it represents a document that is quite deceptive.

You might conclude from this that May managed much higher levels of persona deception than the other candidates and so is destined to win. There are two reasons why her levels are high: she said much less than the other candidates and her results are distorted by the necessary normalizations; and she used “I” many fewer times than the others. Her interactions were often short as well, reducing the opportunities for some kinds of words to be used at all, notably the exclusive words.

Mulcair’s levels are relatively low because he took a couple of opportunities to talk autobiographically. This seems intutively to be a good strategy — appeal to voters with a human face — but unfortunately it tends not to work well. To say “I will implement a wonderful plan” invites the hearer to disbelieve that the speaker actually can; saying instead “We will implement a wonderful plan” makes the hearer’s disbelief harder because they have to eliminate more possibilities’ and saying “A wonderful plan will be implemented” makes it a bit harder still.

It’s hard to draw strong conclusions in the Canadian setting because elections aren’t as much about personalities. But it looks as if this leaders’ debate might have been a wash, with perhaps a slight downward nudge for Mulcair.


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