What Hath Technology Wrought?

Good, old fashioned groups as an anecdote for internet disease

Posted May 30, 2013

By Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova

Think about groups of people you really miss. It could be former co-workers (with whom you really got along well), members of a sports team you played on, or anyone else. The groups where you really ‘click’ with people, where relationships are really cemented over time, can be so pleasurable that some find it hard to separate from the group. For most of us, such positive group relationships are a good thing (and probably help us to forget one’s group-based horror stories of dysfunctional teams). Yet, as with most things, there can be a dark side to this phenomenon, which Bill Swann of the University of Texas and his colleagues call group identity fusion — the feeling of being truly enmeshed in a collection of people (more on that later). Can the process by which people get attracted and “stuck” within a group help us to understand, for instance, how people like the Boston Marathon bombers or others like them become immersed in terrorist groups? While the back-stories, relationships, and other facts surrounding the Boston marathon bombers continue to emerge, as is typical of such tragedies, we try to make sense of what motivated these individuals to do such a deed and the role played by the individuals these people knew, as well as the ways they communicated, continues to be investigated.

One aspect of such ‘sense-making’ efforts is examining how overseas radicals of one sort influenced the perpetrators or another, and this case is no exception. The trips Tamerlan Tsarnaev took to regions known for fomenting terrorism, like Chechnya and Dagestan, and the still shady details of who he met and what he learned from them, are still hot topics of discussion.

The other side of this sad coin includes the role of the Internet in pushing and pointing the bombers, either in pumping their minds with twisted ideology or providing technical know-how. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, has focused on this role, recently writing how the terrorists appeared to be “self-radicalized” through the Internet. Yet, other stories persist about those trips, suggesting help came from face-to face interactions. So while Friedman’s column concerns the mystery of why the bombers didn’t use their energy to build schools in troubled foreign lands, (instead of making bombs) there is another more fundamental mystery that social psychology can perhaps help us understand- the questions of where and how these people are influenced.

It seems very likely that influence can come from both places (internet and face-to-face). A more fundamental question, though, is how people like the Tsarnaev brothers become so attracted to terrorist groups. This brings us back to the research, which suggests that it is not just identifying from a group but something stronger- feeling so deeply enmeshed in a group they find it difficult to leave- that is called identity fusion. As an illustration, the movie Hurt Locker depicted how much members of the military miss their fellow soldiers when they finish a tour of duty. Former professional athletes often say the most difficult part of retiring from the game is the missed relationships of teammates. Such relational ties to group members may also be at play in the way people like the Tsarnevs become enmeshed with, radical groups. We have also learned that the bombers might have gotten details about bomb-making from online sources including Al Qaeda. All in all, it seems a lot easier and more likely to get information, and be influenced by, an Internet connection than going to the trouble and expense of taking a trip halfway around the world. Yet, the questions about trips with all their absent details remain, suggesting to at least some people there was something beyond the online world that contributed to the two brothers’ turn for the inky dark world they entered. But any real conclusions seem unreachable and speculative, at least at this point.

Depressing as it may be, we may never be able to tease out the sources of such acts and how terrorists are influenced with any precision; a variety of people and groups are likely at play. So what can we do? It seems unrealistic to think we can regulate to any meaningful extent what people, the Tsarnaevs or others, read on the Internet. But perhaps there would be more luck in efforts to connect troubled individuals to more positive role models and social groups. In practice, such groups don’t have to be involved in building schools overseas, as Friedman proposed. Think a social version of Habitat for Humanity that just might direct minds to a more positive purpose and show them how there is hope, before they turn to radical, violent ideologies. Enmeshing into those types of groups, then, would potentially turn troubled individuals away from violence-oriented groups, if we could learn more about how the enmeshment process actually works. Yes, this sounds like a lot of (expensive) social engineering, but if it could prevent another Boston Marathon Bombing, wouldn’t it be worth it?