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Commentary and Analysis

October 2008

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New technologies and the popularity of social networking services such as Facebook offer a huge untapped potential for influencing the “silent majority” of non-violent Muslims to take a more active role against terrorism, according to this essay by a U.S. Army PSYOP officer. He proposes a specific tool, “persuasive interactive applications,” to promote this goal. — Ed.

social networking services

In a recent speech at the Washington Institute, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman, outlined goals and the way forward for “Winning the War of Ideas.”1 This paper will highlight portions of Undersecretary Glassman’s speech and offer a method and a tool by which the plan he outlines can be forwarded. Additionally, the paper will provide corroborating data on why and how the tool will work.

In his speech Glassman states: “Here is our ultimate goal: A world in which the use of violence to achieve political, religious, or social objectives is no longer considered acceptable; efforts to radicalize and recruit new members are no longer successful; and the perpetrators of violent extremism are condemned and isolated.” He goes on to offer several ways to achieve this goal. He explains, “We achieve our desired goal by offering, often in cooperation with the private sector and using the best technology including Web 2.0 social networking techniques, a full range of productive alternatives to violent extremism.”

The tool I propose in this paper to meet this intent is persuasive interactive applications (web apps), offered to the millions of people around the globe utilizing social networking services.2 While I will refer specifically to the social networking platform Facebook, the leader in user-generated interactive applications, user created and distributed applications will soon cross over to the thousands of social networking sites such as MySpace, Oracle, Plaxo, Viadea, XING and more.

The world continues to evolve towards increasingly decentralized organizations, moving freely and with little structure. As a result, when bureaucratic institutions try to keep up or defeat a decentralized organization, they are often doomed to failure.3 As Toffler and Toffler explain in their book Revolutionary Wealth:

Terrorist organizations are designed to run rings around bureaucracies. Comprising tiny, loosely networked cells whose members know the identity of one or two other people, most can make decisions quickly, are trained to hit, run and vanish – or blow themselves up. Compared with the Department of Homeland Security, Al-Qaeda is flat as a pancake. And its members don’t belong to civil service unions (p. 232).

Leveling the Ground
However, when you have one decentralized organization, such as those that exist within on-line social networking, combating a decentralized enemy group, the War of Ideas is on level ground. Daniel Kimmage of the New York Times would disagree: He feels we are not on level ground but that in the Western world the advantage has shifted to us – particularly if we take advantage of our strengths in the area of social networking. In a June 26, 2008 article, he writes:

When it comes to user-generated content and interactivity, Al Qaeda is now behind the curve. And the United States can help to keep it there by encouraging the growth of freer, more empowered online communities, especially in the Arab-Islamic world. If Web 1.0 was about creating the snazziest official Web resources and Web 2.0 is about letting users run wild with self-created content and interactivity, Al Qaeda and its affiliates are stuck in 1.0.

He continues:

Try to imagine Osama bin Laden managing his Facebook account, and you can see why full-scale social networking might not be Al Qaeda’s next frontier. It’s also an indication of how a more interactive, empowered online community, particularly in the Arab-Islamic world, may prove to be Al Qaeda’s Achilles’ heel. Anonymity and accessibility, the hallmarks of Web 1.0, provided an ideal platform for Al Qaeda’s radical demagoguery. Social networking, the emerging hallmark of Web 2.0, can unite a fragmented silent majority and help it to find its voice in the face of thuggish opponents, whether they are repressive rulers or extremist Islamic movements.

This ability to bring together the silent majority to find a voice is exactly what Glassman refers to in his speech when he states:

We seek to build countermovements by empowering groups and individuals opposed to violent extremism – movements (using both electronic and physical means) that bring people together with similar, constructive interests, such as mothers opposed to violence (built on the MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, model), believers in democratic Islam, even electronic gaming.

Apps to Influence and Persuade
The user-generated applications in networks such as Facebook go beyond simple social networks, however. As BJ Fogg, Stanford professor, author, and teacher of the course “The Psychology of Facebook” states, Facebook “allows ordinary people to create apps and distribute them through social networks online” (p. 2). However the applications for social networking services are not simply fun games and information. They are designed to influence and persuade. Again Fogg: “The creator of the experience intends to make an impact on peoples’ lives. For example, a political party could design an experience to win support for their candidate by asking people to watch a video online and then to add their name to a public petition” (p. 4).

Does this fit in with Glassman’s concept? Yes. He states:

Our role is as a facilitator of choice. Mainly behind the scenes, we help build networks and movements – put tools in the hands of young people to make their own choices, rather than dictating those choices. Again, in the words of the National Security Strategy: ‘Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen.’

Glassman’s term “facilitator of choice” resonates with Thaler and Sunstein’s recent book Nudge, in which they refer to “choice architects” who have responsibility for “organizing the context in which people make decisions.” A choice architect steers people’s choices while still allowing the people total freedom to choose. However, in the context of this freedom to choose, a choice architect can give the user a “nudge,” which Thaler and Sunstein explain is anything that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way.

Nudging through choice architecture is exactly what Facebook applications do. These applications use a wide variety of very effective social psychology influence and persuasion tactics including, but not limited to: anchoring, availability, feedback, representativeness, status quo bias, social comparison, compliance, ingratiation, spotlight effect, path of least resistance, simple choices, incentives, and cooperation. This ability to “nudge” utilizing user-generated applications within social networking services is central to what BJ Fogg has termed Mass Interpersonal Persuasion (MIP). MIP ties everything together discussed thus far and offers even more. In Fogg’s, paper Mass Interpersonal Persuasion: An Early View of a New Phenomenon, he explains MIP has six components working in harmony together. They are: Persuasive Experience, Automated Structure, Social Distribution, Rapid Cycle, Huge Social Graph, and Measured Impact.

The Persuasive Experience involves the use of persuasive applications discussed earlier; Fogg defines it as “An experience that is created to change attitudes, behaviors, or both” (p. 4). Automated Structure is also key for two reasons. First, the persuasive application is always there in the social networking service. The system will convey the persuasive experience the same time, every time, repeatedly. Second, the Automated Structure makes it easy for the user to accept and distribute persuasive applications. Humans are proven to be cognitively lazy. However, as Fogg states, “If a tasks seems simple to us – like clicking a mouse once or twice – we are likely to do the task right away” (p. 6). This is exactly the design of Facebook persuasive applications. One mouse click lets the user accept the application and a second mouse click allows the user to distribute to friends.

Social Distribution
This leads to Social Distribution. Once a user has accepted a persuasive application, that friend can then easily invite other friends to join in.

Why would someone download and/or pass on an application in Facebook? The answer lies in the inherent trust and credibility that the site offers. No one can see another person’s Facebook page unless that person gives them permission by inviting them to be a “friend.” As a result, the social networks are made up of people the user has hand-selected and implicitly trusts. Al Qaeda has figured this out on a limited scale. They have a small but powerful, password-protected social networking-type site. A June 24, 2008 Washington Post article explains that Al Fajr Media Center linked dozens of webmasters around the world in a heavily decentralized network. This network, via the Web, receives and distributes propaganda from terrorist groups around the world. The nature of the network lends itself to high reliability, consistency, and authenticity amongst contributors and users. The basic principles hold true on a larger scale within the walls of a high-trust environment of social networks such as Facebook. The growth can be exponential and quick. It is not unlike the old Breck shampoo commercials that say: “…and she tells two friends and so on and so on and so on.”

The quick growth is what Fogg refers to as Rapid Cycle, and the exponential growth is what he refers to as Huge Social Graph. Because of the simplicity of accepting and distributing persuasive applications within Facebook, an application can spread rapidly. When it starts to spread rapidly, other users notice and want to join in (social comparison), and as Fogg observes in his paper, the “momentum sweeps many people into a movement who may otherwise not get involved” (p. 7). Huge Social Graph is what Fogg refers to as “a network of millions of people connected to one another” (p. 8). In the example above of Al Fajr Media Center network, there is a social network, but it is very limited in its scope. Facebook has over 60 million users, MySpace nearly 120 million users, and Yahoo (which is not yet ready to connect their social networks) has over 250 million users. Fogg predicts, “Persuasive experiences of the future will almost certainly be able to jump from one social graph to another. For example, a movement supporting Burmese monks may start in Facebook, but then be ported to other social networks such as Bebo and Hi5” (p. 8).

Finally, MIP has Measured Impact. Effectiveness is generally one of the hardest components to measure in influence operations. However, most platforms such as Facebook have measurements built in. Any user of Facebook can see how many people have downloaded what application, how many people have used it on a given day, and how many of your “friends” have the application. This Measured Impact allows social comparison, which helps build the momentum discussed previously. Additionally, the Measured Impact allows the creators of the persuasive application to fine-tune the persuasive experience based on the feedback they receive.4

Releasing Control
Key to success in this area is to first develop an appropriately powerful persuasive application that will resonate with the target audience, and second to get the application launched and picked up within the desired social network. Then watch as it takes off. Some may not want to release this control, but that is the beauty and power of decentralization versus bureaucracy. Some also may not want to put these applications in the hands of “amateurs” to propagate. However, it is exactly by doing this that the applications gain credibility. As Glassman states, “It is the fact that the battle is going on within Muslim society that makes our role so complicated and that requires that we ourselves not do much of the fighting. The most credible voices in this war of ideas are Muslim.” These applications are a tool by which to put those voices into credible mouths.

Glassman continues his speech by listing five focal points of the program – three of which can be incorporated into this initiative. They are: Muslim society, especially involving young people, at the grassroots; Middle East elites, who involve themselves in ideology and religious doctrine; and private sector expertise. Starting with the last first, the private sector expertise could be any of the social networking sites that allow user-generated applications; however, the real expertise needed lies in the realm of designing and launching the persuasive applications in order to achieve the desired effect on the desired target audience.

Technically, many private sector companies with experience in persuasion and influence as well some computer savvy could contribute to this initiative.5 However, BJ Fogg and his Stanford Peace Innovations (SPI) is a natural fit for this union. As their website (http://peace.stanford.edu/) states, “At Stanford, our goal is to help people use new technology to invent peace.” (Of course, to keep abreast of the progress of this innovation, one can join their Facebook Group.) It is noteworthy that the leader of SPI has consulted for Facebook, runs a Persuasive Technology Lab, and teaches courses at Stanford involving persuasion, Facebook, psychology, and peace.

Muslim youth and the Middle East elites could definitely be reached by this initiative as well. While it is common knowledge that Internet penetration is weak in the Middle East, what is often overlooked is the large Muslim populations that live in areas where Internet penetration is high. As Toffler and Toffler state in their previously-cited book:

Today fully a third of all the world’s Muslims live as ethno-cultural minorities in non-Muslim countries, increasingly distanced from Islam’s geographical center. They include a floating, on the move population of middle-class Muslims intellectuals, businesspeople, engineers and professors who may work and live in a sequence of different countries as they pursue the job market. Oliver Roy of the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris contends that world Islam will be increasingly influenced in terms of ideas, politics, lifestyle, culture, identity by what he calls Islam’s “de-territorialized” millions, largely based in Europe.

A Starting Point
We already have a starting point for launching this initiative, as an informal network already exists. Glassman proposed one idea that dovetails nicely. His idea is “a far more robust alumni network – encouraging social networking by Internet among the one million alumni participants in our educational and cultural exchange programs. If they wish to help, these alumni will be credible voices, pushing back against violent extremism and offering alternatives.” A simple search would quickly identify which alumni are already currently on sites such as Facebook and a variety of techniques could be employed to encourage current participants in our education and cultural exchange programs. However, it’s reasonable to assume that most current exchange students already are on Facebook. Additionally, there are a number of Muslims in U.S. universities who are not part any official programs and could also form a core of Glassman’s “network.”

If this program takes off, it is likely that more will happen than the target audience signing petitions or coalescing into an on-line vocal majority. Research on “foot-in-the-door” persuasion techniques has documented that when a person agrees to a small request, such as downloading an application or signing a petition on a certain subject, they are then more willing to agree to larger requests at a later date. Research shows that this phenomenon even works over the Internet.6 One could easily imagine a scenario in which a Muslim spokesperson or leader makes a small act of commitment, such as signing a petition and forwarding it to friends within the trusted confines of his social network, and as a result is more willing to make a public statement or engage in counter-propaganda like the Dr. Fadl that Mr. Glassman cites in his speech.

Additionally, one could imagine a time in the future, when we are not the ones creating the applications and launching them into user groups, but users in the groups that we have encouraged to form are developing and distributing the persuasive applications themselves. A definite advantage of the user-populated applications is precisely that they are user-generated. The July 14, 2008 edition of Newsweek relays:

A YouTube spokesperson stated that 10 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube every minute. This is the equivalent of 57,000 full-length movies every week. This translates into dollars and work the company does not have to generate. The FunnyOrDie site CEO estimated that their 10,000 hours of video would translate to about $8 billion if produced as the industries’ “inexpensive” rate.

So not only is the program efficient and persuasive. It is cost-effective.

Plan of Action
There are many ways in which to approach this opportunity. One would be as follows:

1. Identify the target area of influence (TAI), for example, Muslims that are anti-terrorism.

2. Begin liaison with private industry to develop persuasive application in the target area or identify a small team to train on development of persuasive applications.7

3. Identify alumni of U.S. State Department cultural and educational programs as well as current enrollees who would form the initial Target Audience in the TAI.

4. Conduct a search to see which members of the Target Audience are part of on-line social networking services.

5. Determine the method of launching persuasive application to the Target Audience.

6. Monitor the progress of the application for Measures of Performance and Measures of Effectiveness and adjust persuasive application as necessary.

7. Over time, based on the monitoring of the Target Audience participation in the persuasive applications, approach active individuals to take on a more public and involved role in speaking out (or whatever the desired action).

Regardless of whether one uses the seven steps outlined above or some other variation of a program, the influence community must get themselves involved in this type of initiative now. Persuasive application within social networking services has exponentially more potential than websites, blogging, instant messaging, or any other web initiative in which the influence community may or may not be involved. What is proposed in this paper is not “the wave of the future” or a “passing fad.” It is now and it here to stay. Social networking services are an integral part of millions of peoples’ daily lives, and their propagation and use will only continue to grow.

The views and opinions expressed in the essay are the author’s and do not reflect the views and opinions of the United States Army or government.

 References

Brafman, O. & Beckstrom, R. (2006). The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable

Power of Leaderless Organizations. New York: Penguin Group.

Croal, N. (2008, July 14). The Internet is the New Sweatshop. Newsweek, 54.

Fogg, B.J. (2008) Mass Interpersonal Persuasion: An Early View of a New Phenomenon.

In Proc. Third International Conference n persuasive Technology, Persuasive

2008. Berlin: Springer.

Glassman, J. (2008, July 8). In a Speech: Winning the War of Ideas at The Washington Institute for Near   East Policy.

Guéguen, N. (2002). Foot-in-the-door technique and computer-mediated communication,

Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 18, Issue 1, 11-15

Kimmage, D. (2008, June 26). Fight Terror with YouTube. New York Times.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About

Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Toffler, A. & Toffler, H. (2006). Revolutionary Wealth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Whitlock, C. (2008, June 24). Al-Qaeda's Growing Online Offensive. Washington Post.

http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial/

http://peace.stanford.edu/

http://www.dataportability.org/

www.facebook.com/


Notes

[1] For a full copy of Undersecretary Glassman’s speech go to www.washingtoninstitute.org.

[2] To the uninitiated or to the readers over thirty, the concept of social networking services may need a short explanation. Social networking services or SNS are web based on-line communities of people around the world brought together by shared interests and activities. The platforms (such as MySpace, Yahoo, Facebook, etc) for these services offer the users a variety of ways to interact and communicate.

[3] I suggest those interested in a more thorough discussion of the characteristics and power of decentralized organizations read Brafman and Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.

[4]The developer can also insert measurement points into the application codes for precise feedback.

[5] Technical expertise is really not required. Facebook offers guides on how to build applications at http://developers.facebook.com/ and tips on what makes an applications effective (persuasive) at http://developers.facebook.com/get_started.php?tab=principles

[7] For a class in Stanford, student groups with mostly no previous experience in web application development developed persuasive applications that were installed by over 16 million users in a period of less than 10 weeks.

 

mccaffreyJamie Efaw is a major in the U.S. Army currently stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

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