Post-Conference Interview with Dr. Nathaniel Greenberg on Social Media Use & Terrorist Strategie

During our annual NCUSLR conference held on November 13th, 2018 in Washington DC, many participants raised questions to the speakers that we could not respond to due to time limits.

As such, we have initiated a series of follow up interviews with our conference speakers to answer these lingering questions.

As you go through these questions and answers please keep in mind that neither the questions nor answers reflect the opinions of NCUSLR.

  • Dr. Hani Shennib

Presenter featured in the following interview:

Dr. Nathaniel Greenberg, Director of the Arabic Program & Assistant Professor, George Mason University

Nathaniel Greenberg is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and Director of the Arabic program at George Mason University. His books include The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz (Lexington 2014), Islamists of the Maghreb with Jeffry R. Halverson (Routledge 2018), and, forthcoming, Information Warfare and the Arab Spring: On the Politics of Narrative in Egypt and Tunisia (Edinburgh University Press 2019).

Prior to joining Mason, Greenberg was a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University where he worked as a subject matter expert and linguist (French/Arabic) on a federally-funded project examining the narrative dimensions of Islamic extremism in post-revolutionary North Africa. Greenberg's research has focused on the cultural fallout of the Arab Spring since early 2011 when he covered the opening weeks of protest in Cairo as a stringer for The Seattle Times.

Presented at the 2nd Annual NCUSLR Conference on Panel II, Security in Libya: From Containment to Selective Engagement. Topic: ”The social media wars: Deterrents of peace in Libya.”

View Dr. Nathaniel Greenberg’s presentation here

Post-Conference Interview with Dr. Nathaniel Greenberg

  • Libya is a small country with a high number of social media users. How do you propose ameliorating social media's negative impact on stability in the country?

I will direct my response to this question towards the subject of ISIS and social media which was the subject of my talk. Communications experts are quite interested in the question of demographics and media impact. One can see how speculation on which groups consume social media and which ones do not might shed some light on the asymmetric distribution of knowledge, information, power. All of this could theoretically be wrapped into a hypothesis on civic participation, democratization, etc. As a literature scholar however I'm deeply skeptical about the prospect of measuring reception to any kind of messaging or media in part because individuals are simply too complex to reduce their thought processes to any one source of external influence. As a case in point, when I showed examples of ISIS filmmaking for attendees of the recent Rayburn House conference there was no way to know whether the images or information I presented would serve to repulse or reinforce existing preconceptions of who ISIS are and what they seek to achieve in Libya. It is unlikely that presenting the group’s narrative concerning oil exploitation or foreign interference served to 'radicalize' anyone in the audience. But who knows! My opinion is that much of the research surrounding media distribution, consumption and public opinion has a very limited shelf-life for future researchers or even researchers from different geographical regions. And going further I would argue that preoccupation with this notion (fueled by the CVE arms race for federal dollars) has created an obstacle to fostering accurate public awareness of what exactly the group represents and how we might best go about challenging their vision of the world. Philippe-Jospeh Salazar makes the salient point in his indispensable book Words are Weapons (Yale 2017) that in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre French media (along with some academics) tended to follow three major (if accidental) hypotheses for explaining who the perpetrators were and why they chose to do what they did: they suffer from mental illness (the psychiatric rationale), they are products of ‘social or familiar marginalization’ (the sociological rationale), or they suffer from an ‘indefinable sense of malaise’ (pyscho-sociology). Each of these pseudo-scientific explanations say much about the fears and expectations of their discursive interlocutors in the media but they tell us virtually nothing about the nature of these individuals or the threats that they pose. I would add to this list of hypotheticals the notion that social media ‘radicalizes’ or directs behavior in one way or another. As I argued in my talk ‘social media’ should be understood simply as a synonym for self-representation. Individuals and groups have found ways to express their vision of the world for millennia and digital communications technology simply provides a new medium for doing so. This is not to suggest that there are no ‘negatives’ to social media consumption (it is telling that parents in Silicon Valley overwhelmingly disapprove of their kids using smart devices because they may cause physical or mental side-effects), but, rather, that linking its usage to one worldview or another is unproductive. ‘Radicalization’ for want of a better term (Salazar suggests ‘conversion’) occurs just as easily through conversation or experience. The case of ISIS in Libya is a good example of this. The country has one of the lowest levels of Internet usage in the world—just 20% of the population according to the World Bank. This puts the country slightly ahead of Angola (13%) and just below Zimbabwe (23%). Attempts to tie together new media technology with social phenomena—be it the Arab Spring or ISIS—serves as a kind of intellectual escape valve that allows us to ignore the complexities of the human experience, a tendency that, in my view, is all too persistent in Western engagement with the Arab and Muslim world. So, in short, my answer to the question is: mediums of self-representation (from social media to novels) do not in themselves carry meaning. They can affect the design or the aesthetic of the message as I discuss in my analysis of digital film-making. But the message, and how it’s received, will always depend on what Habermas describes as the ‘life-world context’ of the creator and the recipient which, again, seldom align.

  • ISIS's use of media: Can you measure its penetration power by state/region? (In Libya specifically

Most studies of social media I have seen indicate that it can be difficult to measure the geographic origin or destination of any one unit of communication. For example, Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain in their book Democracy’s Fourth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring (Oxford 2013) show that two weeks after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2011, the number of tweets associated “most prominently with political uprisings” peaked in the Egyptian digital sphere at about 3,400. But there is no way of knowing how many of those tweets emanated from outside the country. A similar problem exists in studying the number of guests on a certain Facebook page, or the number of views on a Youtube video. The number of likes or views on any given ISIS post or video associated with Libya tend to range from just a handful to three or four thousand. Determining the extent to which any single page or tweet becomes a ‘hub’ (basically how much it has been shared) would require quite a bit of time and resources. (You would think someone is doing this but I suspect not). But again, with all of this, it is difficult to determine (as far as I know) how much of the online activity is actually emanating from within Libya, let alone one particular region. However, I do suspect, yes, given an in-depth understanding of a region’s cultural and lexical identity researchers could estimate the extent to which a particular region or community is expressing itself through social media. Wholly distinct from this question is the matter of how certain groups represent their identity. In my talk, I showed examples of ISIS battle or ghazwa films made in each of the Caliphate’s so-called Wilayat (provinces) in Libya: Fezzan, Barqah and Tarabalus. Each of these films conveys a distinct territorial aesthetic that is carefully calibrated to capture the imaginations of specific target audiences, including, I suspect, local sympathizers (the ansar) and potential foreign recruits (muhajirin). Understanding the unique aesthetic design and lexicon of al-Qaeda and ISIS filmmaking is far more illustrative in my view than quantitative-based analyses. However, to be sure, the two can and should work together.

The views shared in this published interview reflect those of the guest contributor and not necessarily the views of the National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations.