Home Slacktivism Learning from Terrorism Studies: How to Defeat Anecdote

by Mary Joyce

A decade ago, academics began to study a crucially important type of extra-institutional political behavior: terrorism. As always, government response did not wait on rigorous analysis. A week after the September 11th attacks, President Bush announced the cause of terrorism: the fundamental inconsistency of values (“they hate our freedom”), and a policy prescription: global war. Neither reflected the underlying mechanics of terrorism and, as a result, America’s war on terror has been largely ineffective and even counterproductive.

In many ways, digital activism and terrorism represent the two poles of extra-institutional political action: the former eschews violence as ineffective and unethical while the other embraces it as critical to victory. Yet both digital activism and terrorism studies seek to bring analytical rigor to the understanding of contemporary political phenomena.

Like the field of digital activism, the field of terrorism studies is overrun by anecdote. A recent New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia School of Journalism noted that terrorism:

“takes place constantly, all over the world, in conflict zones and in big cities, in more or less developed countries – one can find an example of just about every anti-terrorist tactic working (or failing to).”

The quote could equally be a reference to the anecdotal rut that digital activism finds itself in, a state of affairs that scholar and activist Patrick Meier has called “anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell.”

In the field of terrorism studies, the response to inconclusive anecdote was to turn isolated case studies into exhaustive comparable data sets by using a universal coding standard. The political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago built a database of 315 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003 and was able to conclude that what united these attacks was not ideology but the strategic goal of territorial control. This idea of terrorists as rational actors made its way into the counterinsurgency manual of General David Patraeus, commander of multi-national forces in Iraq.

This method of transforming case studies into comparable data which can yield actionable conclusions for practitioners might also work for digital activism, yet rigor does not mean the end of debate.

Image: New Yorker

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