Nothing if not web-savvy, al Qaeda has learned to exploit gimmicks devised by Western game and social network developers to expand and inspire its base. Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine explain in a Foreign Policy piece titled World of Holy Warcraft.
The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. . . . Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.
But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping [its users] clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition. . . . Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly.
Are these techniques capable of producing actual terrorists? According to Brachman and Levine, they’re liberally used by the web designers for former imam turned regional al-Qaeda planner Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, and the Christmas Day airline bomber.
Last year badges and levels popped up on Huffington Post in the form of “HuffPost Badges.” Still in beta, it encompasses various levels of “Networkers,” “Superusers” and “Moderators.”
It seems unlikely that progressives will take to such a juvenile system. But this author, for one, will be all too happy to stifle his condescension if badges and levels prove capable of generating Middle-East- or Wisconsin-style protests in the United States.