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How virtual identities explain the San Bernardino attacks

Separate online identities are common and potentially vulnerable to radicalization

December 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

Most terrorist attacks or major shootings are quickly followed by interviews with the perpetrators’ surprised neighbors, friends and family members. Typically, the interviewees voice surprise that the attackers, who had seemed to them to be regular people, had extreme views and were capable of inflicting mass violence. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple believed to be behind the murder of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last week, have been variously described as quiet, studious, moderate and friendly. They were “living the American dream,” according to one co-worker. “I can never imagine my brother or my sister-in-law doing something like this.” Farook’s sister said.

There’s no reason to doubt these descriptions. But behind the temperate exterior, the pair planned their murderous attack for some time. While the precise details and motivations remain hazy, it is believed that Malik pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Facebook the day of the attack. Law enforcement officials stated that Farook contacted people of interest overseas. A picture is emerging of a couple inspired by ISIL, likely online. “Self-radicalized” is how one law enforcement official described it.

More details will continue to emerge about the pair and their motivations and behavior. But from what is already public, their situation looks like something that has nagged counterterrorism experts for some time now: regular people silently and secretly becoming more extreme, planning and plotting without friends or families suspecting a thing and leaving few clues that might alert authorities.

Perhaps disbelief and shock are easier than facing a more troubling truth: that people are capable of forming separate identities online that are kept hidden from those closest to them. It happens more often than we think and in all sorts of ways.

In my book “The Dark Net,” I tracked a British far-right activist going through a similar process. I first came across his online persona, that of an aggressive, vitriolic nationalist. When I met him in person, he was completely different — friendly, warm and easygoing.

Paul (not his real name) was a very modern extreme nationalist. He lived his life through a computer screen, where he spent 90 percent of his time reading white pride propaganda. Protected by the anonymity of his multiple online identities and accounts, he built up an impressive network of followers and supporters and was trying to spark a racial awakening among white Britons with his blog posts, tweets and homemade videos.

He got to that point gradually. He joined an English Defence League Facebook group and worked his way up to an administrator, enjoying significant power and responsibility. He loved it, he told me, and spent most of the day on it. He devoured articles that others in his group posted or that he found himself about the danger Islam supposedly posed to the United Kingdom. He started attacking Muslims on other Facebook pages, and some attacked him back, each side polarizing and radicalizing the other. Paul was living in an exciting Manichean world of friends and enemies, right and wrong — in which he was the protagonist. Within a couple of years, he was calling Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who murdered 77 people in Oslo in 2011, a hero.

Paul’s virtual world was more exciting than his real life. The digital Paul was a dynamic, aggressive and prominent advocate of extreme nationalism. The real-world Paul was a friendly — but extremely frustrated — unemployed man who lived alone in a small house.

When digital identity is more fulfilling and meaningful than the complicated and usually imperfect real-world version, some people find they are able to stretch their moral limits more easily.

ISIL’s online propaganda makes a similar appeal: selling adherents the prospect of becoming a hero fighting and defending some noble cause, helping realize a utopian caliphate, to be handed a wife, to handle guns and, after death, to receive paradise and virgins. The murderous reality, of course, is far removed.

Paul’s split identities allowed him to behave online in ways he wouldn’t have offline. This phenomenon was first spotted in 2001 by the psychologist John Suler. He called it the “online disinhibition effect.” The Internet allows people to disassociate their real self from their online behavior, to create fictitious identities and alternative realities in which social restrictions, responsibilities and norms do not apply. Lots of people can keep those different worlds separate. But sometimes the worlds collide, and the online world creeps into the offline one — with terrible consequences.

Paul managed to keep them separate, but many others do not. In his early 20s, Breivik was spending hours each day reading blogs and articles about the imminent end of the white race and the threat posed by cultural Marxism to European culture. He became convinced that Islam was taking over Europe and that violent resistance was the only way to curb its rise. Norwegian security services believe he acted independently — a lone wolf, with no accomplices or conspirators. But he did have a huge network of online contacts and like-minded individuals.

None of this is to blame the Internet rather than the perpetrators of violence. But it’s more common than we like to believe for people to create online worlds and personas quite removed from the real world. In many circumstances, that’s very positive, because it allows people to explore new parts of their identity and to play out the different facets of who they are. But other times this is a problem, especially when digital identity is more fulfilling and meaningful than the complicated and usually imperfect real-world version. Some people find they are able to stretch their moral limits more easily.

It’s too convenient to declare that people who are inspired by ISIL propaganda are nonautonomous agents brainwashed or radicalized by the Internet. That conclusion often leads to the reflexive response by political leaders that shutting off propaganda would solve the problem.

But the reality is more complicated than getting sucked in by slick propaganda. It’s a journey during which virtual identities are formed, meaningful relationships are created and offline connections become less important. This makes online radicalization a very awkward problem. Once an online identity is created, it can be hard to snuff out.

Censorship is notoriously difficult online. A potentially more fruitful approach is for civil society groups to get online and confront, disrupt and discredit ISIL's digital efforts. This is slowly starting to happen. The hacker collective Anonymous has already been working to disrupt ISIL activity, although the effects of their work remain to be seen. Meanwhile, the UK think-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in partnership with a number of technology firms, are producing counter-speech content and piloting ways of reaching people. It has even created targeted online adverts at individuals and measure levels of engagement. According to the project manager, Dr. Erin Saltman, early results are promising.

As it stands, there is a disparity of passion. Extremists, almost by definition, are highly motivated and spend untold hours producing high quality, compelling digital content. Those trying to present alternatives are often less motivated or more typically lack the time, skills, resources and glitzy content to compete. While government messages and campaigns rarely carry much weight with the people they are trying to reach, they must do more to help amplify the voices of those who can make a difference.

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “The Dark Net” (Melville House, 2015) and the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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