After Saturday night's mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Islamic State supporters changed their Twitter profile pictures to images of shooter Omar Mateen in tribute. Though Mateen appears to have no official ISIS ties, he called police during the attack to dedicate the destruction to the terrorist network. For jihadis, that's all it takes to be part of their cause. A "public oath is about the only requirement that the Islamic State imposes on followers who wish to carry out acts of terror in its name," long-time Islamic State chronicler Rukmini Callimachi wrote in The New York Times.
On Monday, President Obama and the head of the FBI said that the same group holding an online celebration of Mateen's massacre of 49 people had inspired him to act through its online propaganda. Obama told reporters that Mateen was "inspired" by "extremist information that was disseminated over the internet." FBI director James Comey added that he was “highly confident” that Mateen's radicalization had happened at least in part online. The FBI said the same thing last year about the San Bernardino shooters who declared allegiance to ISIS on Facebook before their workplace attack that resulted in the deaths of 14 people in December.
Authorities have not yet provided evidence of the nature of Mateen's online radicalization, but they have searched his apartment and have likely examined his technological devices. They may well know that he visited specific websites or joined specific, terrorist-affiliated online communities. But when there is no direct order from a group like ISIS, what does it mean to be "radicalized by the internet"?
The internet, along with video games and violent movies, is an easy scapegoat when things in our world go horribly wrong. And yet, it's impossible to ignore its role. The influence of hate and violence do spread through online channels. In our networked culture, it is hard for any deranged individual to truly act alone.
The work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter offers a useful framework for understanding the spread of radicalization. In a famous essay published in 1978, Granovetter laid out a social theory for how riots occur and how a large group of people can suddenly shift from peaceful to violent. Riots, he hypothesized, are driven by "thresholds." The guy who starts a riot by throwing the first rock has a threshold of zero; he's willing to bust through a window at the slightest provocation. There's a second person in the crowd with a higher threshold for committing violence who's willing to throw a rock, but only if someone else does so first. There's a third person who is willing but only if two people have gone before him. This continues until eventually the guy who you never suspected would ever do such a thing is right there with them, shattering glass.
Last fall Malcolm Gladwell turned to Granovetter's theory in an attempt to explain the over 140 school shootings that have occurred in just the last four years.
"The riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement," Gladwell writes by way of explaining the motives of shooters who seem to come from happy, trouble-free homes. "The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts."
Gladwell noted that, in many cases, the young men who commit the shootings leave notes or manifestos that inevitably reference other young men who have committed school shootings as their inspiration, most often evoking Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's infamous attack on Columbine High in Littleton, Co. in 1999. Columbine, Gladwell argued, "laid down the 'cultural script' for the next generation of shooters."
In a far less subtle way, the Islamic State has laid out its own "cultural script," offering by way of viral gore not only evidence of its own riot acts but a plan by which followers can follow the example to commit acts of their own.
Last month Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the terrorist group's spokesperson, urged supporters to carry out killings abroad during the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
“The smallest action you do in the heart of [the United States] is dearer to us than the largest action by us,” he said, in a call to action, “and more effective and more damaging to them.”
Writing in The New York Times, Callimachi notes that the nature of the connection between 29-year-old Mateen and ISIS is, in the end, irrelevant.
"Influencing distant attackers to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and then carry out mass murder has become a core part of the group’s propaganda over the past two years," Callimachi writes. "It is a purposeful blurring of the line between operations that are planned and carried out by the terror group’s core fighters and those carried out by its sympathizers."
The internet did not create this kind of contagion—Granovetter's theory, of course, dates long before it. But just as air travel has sped the spread of viral outbreaks, the internet provides tech-savvy organizations like ISIS the means to spread mental contagion. Still little is known about Mateen and the root of his motivations, but by flooding Twitter and Facebook with gory propaganda and jihadist messaging, ISIS can easily access those teetering on the edge.
If Granovetter's theory is still valid nearly four decades later, it means the ISIS fighters who beheaded journalists and then uploaded the videos to YouTube were those with the zero threshold. Then somewhere down the line, maybe four or five stone throwers later, after the Paris attacks in November 2015, the San Bernardino shooting in California in December 2015, and the Brussel bombings in March, comes Mateen, the next in the pattern.
Granovetter does not offer any useful advice on how such a contagion is to be stopped, only a model designed to explain an endless spread. Unlike diseases of a viral nature, there is no equivalent to a quarantine. Organizations like Twitter, after all, have tried shutting down ISIS Twitter accounts, only to be faced with even more that pop up.
“Kim Kardashian is retweeted more in three days than ISIL has done on social media since they were created,” a state department official said earlier this year, attempting to debunk the hype surrounding the Islamic State's exceptional social media savvy.
The problem, he went on, is that a contagion like ISIS doesn't have to spread very far to have a devastating impact.
"In this information war you can win 99.9 percent of the audience," he said. "But those tiny percentage–.1 of 1 percent, like .001 of 1 percent of the Muslim population of the world—is still a couple of million people, and you could lose the whole thing.”