Of Mice and Men, fake news and terrorism

I am always tickled pink when I see what I think are fascinating parallels between (or among) phenomena. As someone who worked in, and now writes about, terrorism and counter-terrorism, I try to find new ways to describe and, if I may be so bold, to explain why people opt for violent extremism as a career choice. Those parallels crop up in the most surprising places sometimes. Hence today’s blog.

Question: what do John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, the onslaught of fake news and misinformation online and radicalisation to violence/terrorism have in common? Answer: read on.

My wife and I attended a theatrical interpretation of Of Mice and Men this week at the Ottawa Little Theatre (hint: it was really well done so if you are in Ottawa go see it!). This tale of the Depression in the western US revolves around George and Lenny, two guys down on their luck who move from temporary work assignment to temporary work assignment trying to make ends meet while dreaming of acquiring their own land one day. Lenny is, how shall I put this delicately, rather slow and relies on George for just about everything. He hangs on George’s every word and has him relate ad nauseum how the two will reach their goals and settle down eventually.

Secondly, a very interesting piece was just published in the online Science blog Nautilus on fake news (NB I recommend you subscribe to Nautilus: some of the posts are a bit above my scientific understanding but they are all well written and informative). This particular one is an interview with a husband and wife scientist team on how fake news and disinformation spread. Here are the relevant quotes for my argument today:

  • People tend to trust their friends, their family, people who they share other affinities with. So if the message can look like it’s coming from those people, it can be very effective. 
  • Another thing that’s become widespread is the ability to produce easily shareable visual media. The memes we see on Twitter or on Facebook don’t really say anything, they conjure up an emotion—an emotion associated with an ideology or belief you might have. It’s a type of misinformation that supports your beliefs without ever coming out and saying something false or saying anything.
  • It’s always been the case that humans have been dependent on social ties to gain knowledge and belief.
  • They’re finding the evidence that happens to support the beliefs they already have. They want whatever it is that they believe to be true.

And there is much more (do read the entire article).

So what does this have to do with terrorism? Everything! I have been saying for close to two decades that people become terrorists through their interactions with others: the notion of self-radicalisation is an oft-repeated (alas!) myth. We are social animals, even the most introverted of us. We learn from, rely on and copy the beliefs and behaviours of others. Who ever heard of a terrorist group of one? OK, the Unabomber may be a sole exception to what I am maintaining here but as I am not well-versed in his case I will leave room for debate even there (NB this leads to a fascinating subject of how a given movement begins in the first place: does it start with the ideas of a single person?).

Lenny relied on George to explain things to him and tell him what to do. Many people go online to consume information – which was put there by others – and gravitate to the information that confirms their own biases, getting drawn in to more and more beliefs (anti-vaxxers are a really good example of this). Terrorist groups put stuff out there with a view to convincing others that they are right, that there are unresolved grievances, that violence must be used to correct them and that their followers should pitch in. It’s all the same phenomenon folks! People affect people.

I’d like to end with an idea I got from the Nautilus article on how to operate in the online world and not fall for fake news. The key is to determine the source of the information encountered and then analyse why it was posted. In other words, what is the underlying agenda? The same goes for anything you read on terrorism, and more specifically the canard about self-radicalisation. Who uses this term? Is it a politician? A researcher? A journalist? A counter terrorism practitioner?

Once you figure out who figure out why and what basis/credibility the author has. I think you will discover that the majority of those that use the term are not as ‘expert’ as they are painted out to be. As a consumer of information we have a duty to try to use the most credible, not the least credible, sources.

In other words, we need to act more like George and less like Lenny.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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