Organizations can’t keep up with the statistics of how many people ISIS have killed

Measuring many things rests on the ability to observe or collect the data. But, a number of organizations have found that they can’t keep up with the actions of ISIS:

He and his colleagues have (alone among wire services) built up a detailed spreadsheet total of civilian and combatant casualties, but faced with the near impossibility of verifying multiple daily reports of massacres in provinces rendered inaccessible since the early weeks of ISIS’s June offensive, they now largely restrict its use for internal purposes.Officials in UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) are similarly downbeat about the accuracy of their records.

“Since the armed conflict escalated, I would say that our figures are significantly under reported,” said Francesco Motta, Director of UNAMI’s human rights office.

“We are getting hundreds of reports in addition to those we verify that we are just simply not able to verify owing to our limited access to areas where incidents are taking place,” he added…

It’s the sheer magnitude of the slaughter that’s overstretching these groups’ resources, but ISIS’s murderous approach to the media has compounded the problem. On top of the much publicized recent beheadings of two American journalists, ISIS also has killed dozens of Syrian and Iraqi reporters. Body counts rely heavily on local news articles for coverage of incidents in towns and rural pockets far from Baghdad, and the jihadists’ seizure of up to a third of Iraq has complicated attempts to report within their areas of control.

It may be a macabre task but an important one. As the article goes on to note, this matters for political ends (different sides will spin the available or estimated numbers in different ways) and for public perceptions. In fact, social problems are often defined by the number of people they affect. Higher numbers of deaths would tend to prompt more reaction from the public but overestimates that are later shown to be false could decrease attention.

Ongoing political debates about sociology in Canada’s House of Commons

A collection of sayings from a recent debate in Canada’s House of Commons on the country’s involvement in fighting ISIS includes some thoughts on sociology:

Sociology, bad: “We must remind ourselves that the root cause of terrorism is the terrorist himself. He, and he alone, has chosen his path,” said Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre.

Sociology, good: “I am saying to the prime minister that it is time for him to consider sociology, social sciences and political sciences, indeed all our world knowledge, both in Canada and elsewhere in the West, and think about effective ways of intervening so that we never have to go through this experience again…,” said NDP MP Denis Blanchette.

On the first quote: individuals do indeed make choices, both good and bad. Yet, to completely pin a decision on a person without any recognition of the broader social forces around them is odd. Think of the typical admonition from parents to their kids to watch out who they hang out with because they don’t want their kids to get in with a bad crowd. People are affected by those around them, even as the vast majority of people around the world in tough situations don’t choose terrorism or crime.

On the second quote: this refers back to comments from Stephen Harper who has suggested several times that sociology provides excuses for criminal and terrorist behavior. Again, explaining why things happen doesn’t necessarily mean saying that people don’t have any agency and that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions.

Sociologist on who gets to define ISIS as a terrorist group

How did ISIS come to be defined as a terrorist group? A sociologist explains:

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves…

Even before the video-taped beheadings, the attacks on Yezidis and other religious minorities seemed to signify international terrorism to the American public. There’s a seemingly odd confusion here in public opinion. While the Taliban in Afghanistan never carried out international terrorism, they were the target of the American response to September 11th just as much as Al-Qaeda was. Similarly, in Iraq, various militant groups were seen as international terrorists even without action beyond the context of the Iraqi Insurgency. Americans have thus learned to think of any militant Islamic group as terrorists; all the group needs to do is reveal its Islamicness. Attacks on religious minorities certainly do that. In this environment, beheading hostages is just another marker, especially as it echoes the acts of previously militants defined as terrorists—Al Qaeda’s beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002 or the frequent beheadings of captives by Al Qaeda in Iraq during the Insurgency…

ISIS really demonstrates the large amount of variation there is among “terrorist” groups. There are lots of different ideologies, lots of different goals, and lots of different types of groups among militants. While policymakers and the public tend to view certain forms, such as transnational networks of Islamists, as threatening, organizational forms might be best seen as different ways of solving resource dilemmas and meeting goals.

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/09/decides-isis-terrorist-group/#sthash.5V5lFlam.dpuf

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/09/decides-isis-terrorist-group/#sthash.5V5lFlam.dpuf

Appears to be a combination of militant Islam and specific actions like drawing attention through victories, controlling territory, and beheadings. But, it still has to be defined as terrorism – these traits on their own don’t automatically confer such a status unless other states and actors do so. When it is the United States or other powerful bodies doing the deciding, a matter of definitions can matter quite a bit.

One implication here is that switching up a few things such as changing the specific place (the Middle East already draws extra attention given recent years) or the religious background of the group or actions receiving less media attention might lead to a very different definition of the group.

Just how many fake Twitter accounts are there? And why does it matter?

Twitter and experts disagree on how many fake Twitter accounts there are:

In securities filings, Twitter says it believes fake accounts represent fewer than 5% of its 230 million active users. Independent researchers believe the number is higher.

Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer. That would amount to nearly 9% of Twitter’s monthly active users. The Italian researchers also found software for sale that allows spammers to create unlimited fake accounts. The researchers decoded robot-programming software to reveal how easy it is for spammers to control the convincing fakes…

Jason Ding, a researcher at Barracuda Labs who has studied fake Twitter followers for more than a year, also thinks Twitter underestimates the prevalence of fake accounts on the network. Mr. Ding says users don’t understand how active and realistic the fakes can appear.

Read on for more details how the battle between the black market and Twitter’s use of algorithms to discover fake accounts is going. Even if the average user can’t quite figure out who is a real or fake user, the consequences are real:

The fake accounts remain a cloud over Twitter Inc. in the wake of its successful initial public offering. “Twitter is where many people get news,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “If what is trending on Twitter is being faked by robots, people need to know that. This will and should undermine trust.”

According to this article and others, it appears that fake accounts are most commonly used for promotional purposes, whether for Washington politicians or entertainment stars. How harmful are these fake accounts which might be used to boost the number of followers or retweet material?

On the other hand, Turkle suggests these fake accounts could easily mask what is really happening on Twitter. Perhaps they are pushing certain Twitter trends, which then influences other users. Or, perhaps these fake Twitter accounts could push false news reports, which could have some different consequences depending on the situation. It could be worse if a large number of users find out they were interacting with or trying to engage with fake accounts.

While I agree with Turkle that this does present an important trust issue, I wonder if it would take some high profile case before this becomes a real issue. Imagine someone is able to use a set of fake accounts to pull off a terrorist act or throw off the government.

Sociologist on how studying an extremist group led to a loss of objectivity

A retired sociologist who studied the Aryan Nation discusses how his research led to a loss of objectivity and a change of research topics:

Aho began his research in the mid-1980s with a focus on the most notorious group in Idaho, the Aryan Nation Church near Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake. Annual conferences were held there with people from all around the world to fight what they called the “race war.” The group, originally formed in California, was forced to relocate to Idaho due to pressure from authorities. Aho was able to interview members of the group face to face, conduct phone interviews and correspond with prison inmates who were part of the organization.

“These individuals were genuinely good, congenial folks,” said Aho. “They were very independent, married, church-going people with deep beliefs. It was only when they gathered in groups and reaffirmed each other’s prejudices that things became dangerous…

In his research, Aho tried to place himself in his subjects’ shoes. He expressed how it is important to see yourself in the other person to find mutual ground and truths that can only be obtained by using this research methodology. However, after nearly a decade of research, he felt that he was losing objectivity and only adding to the problem.

“I spent years trying to understand the people who are attracted to violence, but I began to feel like my fascination with violence made me partly responsible for it,” Aho said. “I think I lost my sociological objectivity, and thought it was time to end my efforts of trying to understanding it, and move on to other scholarly activities.”

Some candor about researching a difficult topic. Given statements by some recently that we should not “commit sociology” and refrain from looking for explanations for violence, we could just ignore such groups. But, looking for explanations is not the same as excusing or condoning behavior and may help limit violence in the future. At the same time, spending lots of time with people, whether they are good or bad, can lead to relationships and a humanizing the research subject. This may provide better data for a while as well as dignity for the research subject but can lead to the “going native” issue that anthropologists sometimes discuss. A sociologist wants to be able to remain an observer and analyst, even as they try to put themselves in the shoes of others.

It would be interesting to hear the opinions of sociologists regarding studying clearly unpopular groups like white supremacists/terrorists. Sociologists are often interested in studying disadvantaged or voiceless groups but what about groups with which they profoundly disagree?

Sociologist/CIA fellow describes “the paradox of the war on terror”

A recent sociology dissertation asked members of the CIA to describe their work and the “war on terror”:

Nolan, a CIA Graduate Fellow in sociology, produced the ethnography by making observations and interviewing 20 analysts in NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) while also working full time as a counterterrorism analyst at Nation Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from January 2010 to January 2011.

She notes that many analysts feel overwhelmed because “they often were not really sure what their jobs were, and they felt that they had very little understanding of what other people in the organization do.”…

What Anna detailed is the paradox of the War on Terror: The U.S. is fighting, but there are no clear day-to-day objectives. There is an enemy, but it is more of a network than an entity. There is an objective, but there is no clear way to win.

Last year The Washington Post, in a report on the NTCT’s disposition matrix, noted that Obama administration officials believe that U.S. global kill/capture operations “are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.”

I’m not quite sure this is confusing, as the article then goes on to suggest. This is a new kind of operation but the parameters are not entirely unknown. The U.S. is working against social networks, which take time to understand and track. (Think of recent efforts for academics and police to analyze the social networks of gangs.)

However, we could ask whether this new reality matches the kind of bureaucratic structure common in larger organizations. If the objectives change consistently as does the information coming in, it seems like there has to be a corresponding structure that allows smaller units to act somewhat independently and quickly respond to situations. Yet, more smaller and independent units still require coordination so they are not working at cross-odds or important information and actions fall through the cracks.

Similarly, it requires a different mentality from the public who might prefer clearly defined operations. Fighting terrorism is not that. Even when there are “successes,” it can take years to lead to them. “Winning” is not one-time event where a peace treaty is signed but rather the ongoing amount of time citizens in the United States are not threatened. (Americans have some experience with these ongoing wars. See the war on drugs and the war on poverty.)

It seems like there is a lot of room here for sociologists to investigate the war on terrorism, the military, the government, and the responses of the American public. Sociologists may have shied away from military sociology in recent decades but this is a critical component for understanding today’s world…

Saudi Arabia counsels militants, Al Qaeda sympathizers with sociology courses

Saudi Arabia just released some militants but only after they went through a counseling program that included sociology classes:

Saudi Arabia says it has released 272 former militants and Al-Qaeda sympathisers after putting them through a “long-term counselling program”.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the militants had undergone Islamic, professional, technical, psychological and sociological courses at Prince Muhammad bin Naif Counseling Center in Riyadh and Jeddah.

The rehabilitation program was designed to encourage the hardliners to adopt the moderate path of Islam. He did not specify the length of the programs.

They were released after showing “positive signs of benefiting from the counselling programs”, the spokesman said.

It would be fascinating to know what was said in those sociology classes…