A new book on religious sects and subcultures, Hijacked: Religion, Mob Violence and Counterculture in the Age of the Internet, by Kurt Eichenwald, seeks to examine how social media and the internet have become a powerful catalyst for organised violence among religious groups. As reported in the New York Times, the book’s author has visited sites such as Scientology, the Heaven’s Gate cult, and the Amish, observing social media feeds and buying into the belief that their online communities are safe. Though he reports about groups who have been victimised for the actions of their online supporters, Eichenwald also portrays violent crackdowns on Luddite followers as a reaction to new ideas threatening to topple established hierarchies.
For many, websites and social media provide an easy, inexpensive means of meeting others who share the same interests, but all this assumes that people care enough about religion to read and engage with a given medium. Recently, however, some religious groups, including Aum Shinrikyo, the group accused of bombings in 1995, the Boston bombers, and the Islamic State, have embraced online networking for its own ends. This means that people of all faiths, from the Lebanese-American hacker Hector Xavier Monsegur to the Deobandi cleric Hafiz Saeed, have used social media to coordinate attacks. It also means that attacks may seem less surprising, be they fatal or non-fatal, when those behind them appear connected to large numbers of followers.
In his article on Book News, Eichenwald suggests the distinction between conventional religious views and those expressed through social media platforms, describing Facebook and Twitter as long-frozen issues that are now “immature and fragile”. Though his account has merit, it isn’t perfect: social media platforms allow people to far more easily establish networks of followers than they could before the internet. Eichenwald himself has a formidable social media presence – he received 2.4m followers on Facebook before Facebook suspended his account for “violating” its rules – and yet some of his actions inspire doubt about the reliability of his opinions. In one post on Twitter, Eichenwald questioned Twitter’s application of its rules, calling to mind how Twitter’s interpretation of bans on “electioneering” had meant that, “If Trump started to campaign by saying this, it would be a war”. Though Eichenwald had not personally called for an “electoral war”, it was somewhat hard to believe that he was looking out for its users’ interests when he made this comment.
The issue raised by Eichenwald’s book is that while social media is useful for specific and defined purposes, it is a vulnerable and hard-to-detect amplifier of certain forms of authority. Recently, women have begun to put their voices to the growing backlash against misogyny in popular culture, but in order to “burn sh*t”, no one is going to do it in the loudest, most obvious way. Regardless of the way things go down online, the violence it can fuel exists elsewhere.
Al-Qaeda still wields the most powerful imaginations, but the targets they choose are not limited to plotting plots. They never prioritise attacks on individuals. Rather, a wide network of people supports their pursuit of ideas; these “lone wolves” are as common in government departments as they are in American mosques. Any movement’s rhetoric must be taken with an enormous pinch of salt, to make sure it doesn’t just speak to ideas but actual people. Social media, for all its flaws, is as capable of legitimising violence as any other medium.
• The Best Known Terrorists is published by Bloomsbury.