Day Donaldson/The Speaker News/CC BY 2.0
Source: Day Donaldson/The Speaker News/CC BY 2.0

In 2015, the world witnessed a string of catastrophic terrorist attacks in places like France, Denmark, Tunisia, Lebanon, and as of last month, the United States. These heinous strikes have been carried out or inspired by members of the Islamic militant group known as ISIS, whose aim is to establish a global Islamic dictatorship by waging holy war on the rest of the world. In order to develop an effective strategy for fighting ISIS, we must recognize that we aren’t just at war with a group of terrorists. We are also at war with a radical ideology that is quickly spreading like a disease. In a strong sense, these ideas are also terrorists, as they hijack the brains of individuals and modify them in ways that change their behavior.

Therefore, in addition to gaining intelligence on how ISIS members operate on the ground—i.e., how they make their weapons, how the coordinate their attacks, etc.—we must understand how the ideas behind those attacks flourish, spread, and generate actions. To do this, it is essential that we recognize that radical Islam functions like a parasitic mental virus, which takes over a host (the individual’s brain) to spread itself while often damaging or even killing its carrier in the process. By mentally overriding the biological programming that instructs humans to survive and reproduce, this ideological virus causes people to commit media-grabbing suicidal attacks in an effort to achieve symbolic immortality. Since we are fighting a psychological war where information can act as a weapon, stopping virulent ideas from spreading is a science we must master.

The Science Behind How Ideas Spread

Just as organisms and their genes compete for survival in the environment and gene pool, ideas compete for survival inside brains. Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has used this insightful analogy to explain how ideas spread and evolve. In his influential 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he refers to ideas as “memes” (the mental analogue of a gene), which he has defined as self-replicating units that spread throughout culture. We are all very familiar with many types of memes, including the various customs, myths, and trends that have permeated mainstream society.

As Dawkins explains, ideas spread through the behavior that they produce in their hosts, which is what enables them to be transmitted from one brain to another. For example, an ideology—such as a religion—that causes its inhabitants to practice its rituals and communicate its beliefs will be transmitted to others. Successful ideas are those that are best able to spread themselves, while those that fail to self-replicate go extinct. In this way, some ideologies persist while others fade into oblivion.

Essentially, the brain is a biological computer, and an ideology is a set of coded instructions, or cultural software, that is running on the brain’s hardware. Esteemed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett insightfully described how ideas can control minds when he said, “The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.” In this regard, it is often not the brain that controls the mind, but the memes that compose the mind that control the brain.

Ideas Mutate — For Better Or For Worse

When ideas are transmitted from one brain to another, the copying process is not perfect. Like DNA, ideas undergo mutations as they replicate, and as a result, different variants are produced. If you want a demonstration of this effect, just play the classic telephone game, and you will see how an idea changes significantly as it travels down the string of players.

Some idea variants will be better at spreading themselves than others, and those will be the ones that grow in number. Pop versions of songs that cause individuals to play or sing them will spread throughout mainstream culture, while less catchy renditions that do not will fail to make a dent in the airwaves. Similarly, when a new Internet meme (a term inspired by Dawkins) is born, many versions with subtle variations are created, but only some of those versions go on to achieve worldwide social media success.

When an ideology is passed from one person to another, or from one group to another, it also undergoes mutations. As a consequence, different versions of that belief system are produced, which generate different types of behavior. As such, there are often good and bad variants of any given religion. For instance, there are peaceful interpretations of the doctrine of Islam that foster qualities like a sense of community and a moral code that instills ethical principles. These ideas can be beneficial to the host organism, i.e., the religious-practicing individual. At the same time, there are harmful interpretations of Islam’s doctrine that emphasize certain specific scriptures which cause the host mind to behave in a manner that is not only destructive to others, but self-destructive as well. An ideology with a tendency to harm its host in an effort to self-replicate gives it all the properties of a parasitic virus, and defending against such an ideology requires understanding it as one.

Ideological Viruses And Mental Parasites

There are various types of viruses and parasites, and viruses are themselves parasites. While biological viruses are infectious agents that self-replicate inside living cells, computer viruses are destructive pieces of code that insert themselves into existing programs and change the actions of those programs. One particularly nasty type of computer virus that relies on humans for replication, known as a “Trojan horse”, disguises itself as something useful or interesting in order to persuade individuals to download and spread it. Similarly, a harmful ideology disguises itself as something beneficial in order to insert itself into the brain of an individual, so that it can instruct them to behave in ways that transmit the mental virus to others. The ability for parasites to modify the behavior of hosts in ways that increase their own ‘fitness’ (i.e., their ability to survive and reproduce) while hurting the fitness of the host, is known as parasitic manipulation.

One particularly intriguing example of parasitic manipulation occurs when a hairworm infects a grasshopper and seizes its nervous system in order to survive and self-replicate. This parasite influences its behavior by inserting specific proteins into its brain. Since the parasite can only reproduce in fresh water, once it is full grown it exerts control over the grasshopper’s movements one final time by instructing it to commit suicide through seeking out and drowning itself in a nearby water supply. Essentially, infected grasshoppers become slaves for parasitic, self-copying machinery, and eventually give their lives to carry out its mission.

In much the same way, radical Islam is a parasitic ideology that inserts itself into brains, commanding individuals to commit outrageous attacks of terror that attract global media attention, which propagates the ideology by broadcasting it to the world. And just like the hairworm inside the infected grasshopper, the Islam of ISIS then commands its host to commit suicide as a final symbolic act that spreads the ideology further. These suicidal jihadist attacks are a secret weapon for the self-replication of radical Islam, as they deliver the message of ISIS to billions, radicalizing unstable individuals and inspiring copycat terror attacks.

Stopping Digital Transmission

By understanding that we are at war with a self-replicating, parasitic virus of the mind that best spreads itself through destruction, we can begin to devise a more effective strategy for stopping its transmission. Prior to the existence of modern information technologies, the transmission of ideological viruses occurred slowly and over short distances only. But unlike previous terror groups, ISIS primarily spreads through the Internet by disseminating its propaganda via social media channels, chat rooms, message boards, and online videos. If more intelligence and defense agencies around the world dedicated greater effort into cleverly waging all out cyber war against ISIS, they could significantly cut off communication between recruiters and vulnerable individuals. For instance, there could be so many covert agents posing as ISIS online that the noise simply drowns out the signal.

Technological advances may also provide new tactics for combatting extremism. For instance, it might prove fruitful to construct a variety of computational models that simulate the spread of ISIS geographically in the real world and on the Internet, so that we may map out exactly how this ideological pathogen evolves over time. One positive aspect of social media and other online activity is that it provides a wealth of data that can be collected and exploited by scientists who have developed very sophisticated tools. Such efforts could yield objective insights that reveal exactly where containment resources should be directed.

Special programs that attempt to de-radicalize those identified as potential ISIS recruits could be put into place, which could offer things like counseling and education, and perhaps the chance to hear firsthand accounts of the horrors of ISIS instead of the pro-ISIS propaganda promising a glamorous life.

Additionally, the media could consistently refer to ISIS by other names like Daesh, an acronym with a negative connotation that is used by much of the Arab world, which could help degrade their message by undermining the group’s legitimacy. By portraying Daesh as the despicable, morally reprehensible psychopaths that they are, we may dissuade those who are simply looking to play for the winning team from joining the enemy. News outlets should also be mindful not to over-cover ISIS-related events just to achieve higher ratings, as it may aid terrorists in their efforts to telecast their malignant beliefs to the world.

There is no doubt that the fight against religious extremism in all its forms is a complex one with no single solution. While history has clearly shown that religions other than Islam, such as Christianity, can be weaponized in much the same way, radical Islam is a dangerous meme that is currently undergoing exponential growth. By thinking outside the box, and using science to inform and instruct us on how to stop the transmission of a malicious ideology, we can defeat ISIS through vaccinating against a deadly psychological virus.

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