Radicalization as an infection

There are many ways to think about radicalization, but there’s one that fits the data fairly well, and has actionable consequences, but is being almost entirely ignored — modelling radicalization as an infection.

The research work didn’t model radicalization directly (how could you?) but rather how postings on particular jihadist topics spread in web forums. The relevant paper is:

Jiyoung Woo; Hsinchun Chen, An event-driven SIR model for topic diffusion in web forums, Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2012 IEEE International Conference on , vol., no., pp.108,113, 11-14 June 2012.

They showed that the data fit well with a standard model called the SIR model (Susceptible-Infected-Recover) and they computed the parameters for the infection rate and the recovery rate. In other words, they showed that it made sense to consider some of the participants to be susceptible to infection by radical ideology, some fraction of these were then infected and espoused this ideology and then some fraction of these recovered and no longer held radical ideas. These fractions could be estimated empirically from the data.

But the important thing that’s being ignored in the current world situation is that there is a recovery rate! People do become radicalized, yes, but not all of them, and the vast majority of them move from being radicalized to no longer being radicalized.

We don’t notice many of these people. They move to a mental place where they would be willing to carry out some kind of jihadist action, but they don’t actually do it before the spell wears off and they are no longer radicalized. Only a few become radicalized and act on it.

Even people who go quite far down the road towards action, perhaps travelling to Syria and participating in violence, may still become disillusioned. Not everyone who returns to the West from the Middle East does so to try and carry out an attack. Many, perhaps most, have had a disease, have recovered from it, and want to get on with their lives.

The risk of a draconian response to returnees is that we may push them back into violence (“If I’m going to be treated as a violent extremist, I might as well act like one”).

Of course, this doesn’t make the job of the intelligence services any easier, at least in the short term. But emergencies tend to create blinkered views of the problem, and I think that this might be happening.

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