Medium Specific Content Types and Features in Counter-Jihadist Groups and Pages on Facebook
Team Members Introduction Research Questions Methodology Findings Discussion Literature
The rise of Web 2.0 platforms from 2003 onward has provided the Internet with a profound social dimension (Lister et al. 204). Through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, people from all around the world are connecting with one another on a larger scale than ever before, allowing like minded people from dispersed geographic locations to interact. Social media have also been appropriated by corporations and institutions as means of efficient organization. At first sight they seem to offer numerous communicative advantages, means of co-creativity and participation (Jenkins 2004). However, like any inexpensive communications medium, these means are being adopted by radical groups, which use popular social media like Twitter and Facebook as organizing tools to spread their ideas and to recruit new members. Traditionally, these radical groups manifested themselves on websites and blogs (Sunstein 2000), but nowadays large number of them is active on social media. Although there have been numerous institutions attempting to censor these extremist web spaces, it is claimed by many that the infrastructure of the Web instigates the ‘erasure of boundaries’ and therefore cannot easily be regulated (Goldsmith and Wu 3).
The formation of online orthodox groups is successful because the Internet plays ‘a crucial role in permitting people who would otherwise feel isolated, or who might move on to something else, to band together and to spread rumors, many of them paranoid and hateful’ (Sunstein 63). Secluded individuals join these groups to gain a sense of belonging and to identify themselves with like minded peers. In this way, people with similar tastes and narratives are finding one another on a massive scale and further substantiate the direction of their ideological stance, ostensibly leading to processes of polarization (Sunstein 2000).
In general, radical groups are characterized by the fact that their members are inclined to use violence in order to push their ideas and ideologies of hate. This often leads to clashes with movements which share different political opinions. Nevertheless, one can state that, on the contemporary Web, formations with contradictory viewpoints are engaged in symbiotic relationships, since they need the presence of the other to wind each other up. A salient example of such a symbiotic struggle is rooted in the interactions between anti-Muslim and pro-Jihadist movements. Especially since the attacks on 9/11 a cyber warfare has been going on in which polarization takes place between these two groups, which perceive the Web as any other regular space which can be dominated.
There have been numerous discussions and disputes about what distinct features the Internet has added to the organization and communication within extremist movements and how the Web, as a registrational platform, can be used to analyze characteristics and patterns within these online groups (Sunstein 2000, Goldsmith and Wu 2006, Kundnani 2012, Lowles 2012). For instance, how exactly do these online groups expand themselves in terms of members? What motivates people to join them? In which discourses are these movements embedded and what content do they share?
Although it is attempted to find answers to all the above inquiries, the interest of this particular research lies in a specific area, namely: what are the communicative consequences of the features offered by today’s dominant social medium –Facebook - for extremist groups? Focus is laid on the medium specific features of Facebook groups and pages and the way anti-Islam movements utilize these properties. There are a few radical differences between Facebook groups and Facebook pages in terms of infrastructure and affordances.
As one can derive from the table, Facebook groups offer more possibilities regarding interaction and engagement. They allow conversations and discussions to take place within a private environment, whereas a page is characterized by its general openness. Although both groups and pages are used to raise awareness about a topic or an idea, groups offer greater possibilities to specifically address members and to organize events. A significant difference between a group and a page is the way of becoming part of them. Within a group it is possible to manage membership restrictions. While a page can always be liked but not joined, a group cannot be liked, but has to be joined. Due to these differences, a page is more about broadcasting the information coming from an administrator to a mass audience, whereas a group pertains a closed circle in which interaction takes place between its members in a more confidential manner. It is questionable whether these diversified - though not entirely mutually exclusive - features of both groups and pages have the tendency to result in different forms of interactions and content.
The aim of this project is to shed light on the ways in which anti-Islam groups appropriate Facebook as a means to realize their goals. By analyzing a sample of both groups and pages on Facebook, two aspects of the social network that offer quite distinct features, it is intended to research 1) how are users related to each other and 2) what - in terms of content - connects them to one another.
The analysis can be specified with the following research questions:
- To which extent do the medium specific features of Facebook lead to a different kind of participation, interaction and engagement within anti-Jihadist groups?
- Which of these group’s content acquires the most user interaction? And why?
By answering these questions we hope to provide some insight into how extremists appropriate Web 2.0 platforms and whether particular properties of Facebook result in different forms of participation and levels of extremism.
In order to retrieve substantial results for the analysis, our objective was to infiltrate several anti-Islamic Facebook groups. As has been mentioned earlier, one needs admission from a group’s administrator in order to gain access to its content. Therefore we set out creating a fake profile and subscribed for numerous groups by looking at the most significant pages and groups which engage in counter-Jihadist activities. After liking some of the pages and applying for the groups, we got accepted to three large groups. These include the Apostates and Infidels
, Stop Islam
, and Islam Is Dangerous group
. The pages within our sample are I Hate Islam
and Stop Islamization of the World
Although there are significant differences between the infrastructural affordances of a Facebook group and those of a regular page, there also exist intrinsic structural differences within certain pages and groups. For instance, groups allow the implementation of privacy settings, meaning a group’s content may either be publicly accessible for outsiders or only admissible for members within that group. In any way, one cannot be instantly admitted to a group but must gain permission of its administrator to join in conversation. The content of the pages, on the other hand, is always accessible, but provides options for who is allowed to post on the wall and who is not. For example, in one of the pages within our sample only the administrator of that page is able to upload content to it. We have made sure that each of the sampled groups and pages has applied various interface settings.
Our initial method comprises an analysis of how these different (medium-specific) properties lead to diverse sorts of participation, especially regarding the degree of engagement with each page or group. The first section of our research will focus on the general interactions between users within the sampled groups and pages. In order to determine the degree of interaction within each group and page, we will look at the friendship connections between its members or subscribers. We will also examine the typologies of the users in terms of age, sex and their locations according to the interface language they use. Furthermore, we will look at the degree of distributions and engagement and check whether we can distinguish which percentage of the users is responsible of which percentage of the content.
The second section comprises a content analysis, focusing on the types of posts (video, link, status update, or photo) and how these are represented within each group. It will also be verified which posts acquire the most user engagement and on which topics these posts focus. With regard to user engagement, posting a comment is usually considered to pertain a larger degree of participation than simply liking a post. By comparing the most engaged with content for each group and page, the initial intention is to analyze the differences in user engagement between pages and groups. Lastly, we will attempt to examine the connections between actors within each group, whether group members are related to one another on a personal level, and how exactly they are acquainted.
Several tools were used to map the friendship networks and interactions within each group and page. Group- and page specific data was extracted from Facebook with the aid of Netvizz
, a tool built on top of the Facebook API
(Application Programming Interface) which allows to retrieve the friendship connections and interactions for each group, and the interactions around specific posts for each page. Subsequently, the extracted data was visualized with Gephi
, an open-source program for mapping large-scale networks. Visualizing the interactions and connections between members of groups and subscribers of pages generates an overview in which one can easily assess differences in closeness and the level of engagement between Facebook members.
Because groups offer a more private environment than pages, our initial expectation is that the degree of engagement (interaction) and the level of extremism (content) will be greater within a group. Nevertheless, as each group and page applies different privacy- and uploading settings, it is important to closely analyze their mutual dissimilarities preparatory to making claims about Facebook’s medium specific affordances.
When looking at the results of the analysis, it is noticeable that there are discrepancies in the degree of engagement between groups and pages. As for the groups, there seems to be a significant difference in types of user interaction between open groups (content accessible for non-members) and closed groups (content inaccessible for outsiders). The closed groups that were examined seem to gain a lot more comments than the open group, therefore indicating a greater degree of engagement (see table).
Types of engagement Apostates and Infidels (closed group)
Types of engagement Islam is Dangerous (open group)
Types of engagement Stop Islam (closed group)
Engagement level on the Stop Islamization of the World (page)
Engagement level on the I Hate Islam (page)
As for the differences within the two closed groups analyzed, the amount of members within each group also seems to determine the degree of engagement and interactions between members. The Apostates and Infidels group, for example, has far less members (around 900) than the Stop Islam group (around 2600 members). This seems to result in more comments than likes for the Apostates group’s content, whereas the Stop Islam group has a slightly larger percentage of likes than comments.
This could be explained by the fact that, because this group is much smaller, the members are more likely to know each other on a more personal level, therefore interacting in a much closer conversations. -- Mind that this finding only accounts for the analyzed sample. This claim could be further substantiated by comparing other levels of engagement within groups with diverse amounts of members.
In opposition to the groups, the pages seem to have more likes than comments in each instance (see table). This can be explained by the fact that every Facebook user has the ability to like a page without the permission of an administrator. As a consequence, the pages have a lot more followers than the average amount of members within a group (the threshold for participation is much smaller for pages). Because the followers are much more dispersed (most of them do not know each other), it is less likely that there is a high degree of engagement or conversation.
Types of engagement I hate Islam page (open)
Types of engagement Stop Islamization of the World page (closed)
As for the differences between pages. We have analyzed two types of pages: one page allows anyone to post content on it (I Hate Islam), whereas the other page only allows posts by the administrator running that page (Stop Islamization of the World). This results in very different kinds of interactions. For instance, the Stop Islamization of the World page relatively has only a few comments and a large amount of likes, whereas the I Hate Islam page seems to have more comments than likes. In general, the posts on the Stop Islamization of the World page generate a lot more user interaction than the posts on the I Hate Islam page. This shows that posts created by users as on the I Hate Islam page get less likes and comments than posts by page administrators such as those on Stop Islamization of the World. Allowing users to freely post on a page might create chaos and cause members to lose attention, while allowing only the page admins to create posts keeps the page controlled and focused on the subject, likely resulting in more user responses. Put more bluntly, it seems that a group consisting of a formation with a leader and followers (hierarchy) yields in higher user activity than a group which is characterized by egalitarianism .
We also visualized the friendship connections of our three groups to see how connected they were and whether some members were active in multiple groups. We found that the Stop Islam group consisted mainly of Spanish speaking people which were closely connected to each other, but not to the other groups. The primary language of the Islam is Dangerous and the Apostates and Infidels group is English, and these two groups are much closer connected to each other. Notable is that within these groups there are clusters of users speaking a certain language, for instance in the Islam is Dangerous group there is a closely connected German speaking cluster, which is largely disconnected from the rest of the group.
It was expected that since groups are far more exclusive in their nature than pages, shut from the 'outside', objective critic, they will reveal much more extremist content as they would make the user feel safer and free to say whatever they wish. When analysing the content of posts in both chosen groups and comparing it with the content circulating on the analysed pages, however, no major differences were discovered. The tone of voice differed between all groups and pages, but it could not be differentiated for the groups-specific and the page specific content.
Some example posts.
This has led to a further brainstorming and discussion in order to understand the deeper motivation of the users for joining groups and choosing that type of engagement over the on-page interactions (as there were no obvious variables visible at first glance). The hypothetical claim has been made that maybe there are sub-networks within the group network that could help to discover personal relationship and a prior acquaintances that had worked as a motivating factor for choosing to join a particular group (for the connected users) over expressing the common interests on public pages.
The friendships connections data and the interactions data (both extracted from the studied Facebook groups) were combined and visualized with the use of the Gephi tool available online. The modularity function showing sub-clusters has been applied. The research direction turned more productive, revealing the claimed sub-networks quite soon. In order to identify those sub-networks (they were marked with different colours, but not named by the tool), the random users' names were extracted and checked on the source platform until the list of confirmed names with open profiles on Facebook were created for a further research. The three names for each colour-group were researched for any links (same attended school, profession, activities, likes etc.) to prove the prior-joining-group connections.
It has been proved for the two out of five sub-clusters for the "Islam is Dangerous" group and for the two out of four for the "Stop Islam" group that these users had personal relations, or have some other connections before becoming a member of a common group (see examples below).
ISLAM IS DANGEROUS GROUP
The Orange Colour Cluster - the POLITICAL CONNECTIONS discovered (valid for all 3 randomly chose users)
Modularity Comparison - Islam is Dangerous (Group) - Locality
Modularity Comparison - Islam is Dangerous (Group) - Modularity
STOP ISLAM GROUP
The Dark Blue Colour Cluster - the ARMY CONNECTIONS discovered (also valid for the 3 randomly chosen individuals)
- David Alonso Freire (Studied at Legion Espanola)
- Luis Barrientos Baca (Cabo Legionario at la Legion Espaniola)
- Agustin Tost (Spanish Legion)
*Additionally, all the above users are friends on Facebook.
Modularity Comparison - Stop Islam (Group) - Locales
Modularity Comparison - Stop Islam (Group) - Modularity
The results have illustrated that there are great differences in the level of engagement, interaction, and participation between groups and pages which to a certain extent can be explained according to the medium specific affordances Facebook allows. Whilst looking at the interaction around posts, there seem to be no consistent discrepancies between the groups and the pages. However, within the sample of this research, is has been proven that closed groups – whose content is not accessible for non-members – enjoy a higher level of engagement than the open ones in terms of the ratio between likes and comments. As for the pages, it turned out that the page on which only the administrator could make status updates has a greater degree of user interaction with its posts. When everybody is allowed to make posts on a page, a lower level of engagement is discernible. This might be a coincidence, but it could also be explained by the fact that, the more a page is consistent in its content, the more credible a page becomes and the more engagement it receives. Therefore it might be fruitful for researchers of extremist manifestations on social media to look at pages that have clearly distinguishable leaders in them.
Furthermore, this research has proven that Facebook groups have a bigger degree of connectivity between its members than pages. Members of groups often have personal connections with one another, whereas the connectivity within the tested pages was rather dispersed.
Modularity Comparison - European Freedom Initiative (Page) - Locales
Modularity Comparison - European Freedom Initiative (Page) - Modularity
Modularity Comparison - Stop Islamization of the World (Page) - Locales
Modularity Comparison - Stop Islamization of the World (Page) - Modularity
Lastly, we have illustrated that pages and groups have very different structures. But, even though groups and pages have quite diverse infrastructures, our sample did not show dissimilarities in the level of extremist content displayed on them.
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