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Crisis Networks and Emergency Behavior: Digital technologies and non-state political actor engagement



The goal of this paper is to offer a new framework for conceptualizing the relationship between traditional channels of political expression and their adoption of emerging communication technologies to respond to the new challenges of digital crises. In doing so, it revisits the question "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?", approaching the questions from a non-state actor point of view. The paper offers a new view on the significance attributed to new digital technologies in collective action and the importance of how older and pre-existing networks adapt to technology during crisis mobilization, armed conflict, and protest. Scholars working to explain the impact of social movements have emphasized the importance of communicative technologies, especially media and the Internet. For sociologists and political scientists, explanations centered on political communication make sense, and the importance of connective action is widely accepted. Yet the connection between traditional and pre-existing mobilization networks, such as religious congregations, political parties, armed groups, and refugees, and modern digital communication technologies has not been well-established. ÖZET Bu makalenin amacı, geleneksel siyasal katılım kanallarının geliĢen iletiĢim teknolojileri karĢısında ne Ģekilde dönüĢtüğünü açıklayan bir çerçeve geliĢtirmektir. Bu bağlamda makale, "Dijital Teknolojiler Siyaseti Ġmkansız mı Kılmaktadır?" sorusunu tekrarlayarak konuya devlet-dıĢı aktörler açısından yaklaĢmaktadır. Bunun yanısıra makale, dijital teknolojilerin gelenksel ve yerleĢmiĢ sosyal ağların üzerindeki etkilerini, kriz seferberliği, silahlı çatıĢma veya protesto gibi kolektif eylemler açısından da irdelemektedir.
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H. Akın Ünver
The goal of this paper is to offer a new framework for conceptualizing the relationship
between traditional channels of political expression and their adoption of emerging
communication technologies to respond to the new challenges of digital crises. In doing so, it
revisits the question “Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?”, approaching
the questions from a non-state actor point of view. The paper offers a new view on the
significance attributed to new digital technologies in collective action and the importance of
how older and pre-existing networks adapt to technology during crisis mobilization, armed
conflict, and protest. Scholars working to explain the impact of social movements have
emphasized the importance of communicative technologies, especially media and the Internet.
For sociologists and political scientists, explanations centered on political communication
make sense, and the importance of connective action is widely accepted. Yet the connection
between traditional and pre-existing mobilization networks, such as religious congregations,
political parties, armed groups, and refugees, and modern digital communication technologies
has not been well-established.
Keywords: Digital Technologies, Social Media, Crisis Behavior, Non-State Actors
Bu makalenin amacı, geleneksel siyasal katılım kanallarının geliĢen iletiĢim teknolojileri
karĢısında ne Ģekilde dönüĢtüğünü açıklayan bir çerçeve geliĢtirmektir. Bu bağlamda makale,
„Dijital Teknolojiler Siyaseti Ġmkansız mı Kılmaktadır?‟ sorusunu tekrarlayarak konuya
devlet-dıĢı aktörler açısından yaklaĢmaktadır. Bunun yanısıra makale, dijital teknolojilerin
gelenksel ve yerleĢmiĢ sosyal ağların üzerindeki etkilerini, kriz seferberliği, silahlı çatıĢma
veya protesto gibi kolektif eylemler açısından da irdelemektedir. Toplumsal hareketler üzerine
Assistant Professor. Department of International Relations. Kadir Has University.
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yazılmıĢ geniĢ bir literatür, dijital iletiĢim teknolojilerinin, özellikle sosyal medya ve Internet
platformlarının giderek artan öneminden bahsetmiĢlerdir. Sosyolog ve siyaset bilimciler
açısından bu bağlantı geniĢ anlam ifade etmektedir, zira bu literatürlerde dijital teknolojilerin
toplumsal hareketler üzerindeki etkisi geniĢ yankı uyandırmıĢtır. Ancak dijital ve geleneksel
seferberlik ağları arasındaki bağlantı henüz çok iyi oluĢturulamamıĢtır. Bu makale de bu
bağlantıyı oluĢturmak için bir çerçeve çizmektedir.
Anahtar Kelimeler: Dijital Teknolojiler, Sosyal Medya, Kriz DavranıĢı, Devlet DıĢı Aktörler
In October 2016, Cambridge University launched its inaugural Nine Dots Prize, offering
$100,000 for the best answer to the question: are digital technologies making politics
impossible? The political developments in the United States, United Kingdom, France and
Germany have brought forward the proliferation of fake-news and their unstoppable
proliferation online, influencing the very fabric of politics in those countries. The winner of
the Nine Dots Prize James Williams argued that digital technologies exploit our collective
psychological vulnerabilities and direct us into political action by feeding from the society‟s
collective attention economies. Social media and digital communication are by definition
persuasive and create echo chambers that amplify our pre-existing beliefs and emotional
response mechanisms.
In this paper, I try to expand upon this idea by introducing four representative vignettes on
how older networks use and adapt to modern communication technologies. Focusing on the
ecosystem of human conflict, I make the overarching argument that most traditional networks
successfully adapt to the digital revolution and expand both the depth and width of their
mobilization capacities. In that line, I argue that the difference between the failure and success
of some digitally networked social movements lies in the extent to which they derive from
traditional networks in their respective social habitats. Movements that are digital-only tend to
suffer from commitment problems due to the ease and lower costs associated with digital
mobilization, whereas traditional-only movements struggle to reach a wider audience in a
limited window of opportunity that defines most modern movements. (Bennett & Segerberg,
2011; Ganesh & Stohl, 2013; Howard & Hussain, 2011; Tufekci & Wilson, 2012; Wilson &
Dunn, 2011) Therefore, the paper makes the case that successful modern social, political, and
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armed movements are those that successfully tap into the intersection of old and new modes
of mobilization, and only then play a role in shaping the flow of history.
Empirically, this paper introduces and analyzes the way different political actors are using
digital technologies to gain an edge during conflict and crisis. Whether used by refugees,
militants, or propagandists, new digital technologies are challenging all non-state actors‟
ability to respond to and succeed in different components of conflict: recruitment, framing,
and survival. The four vignettes introduced in this paper follow the cyclical structure of a
conflict, starting on the battlefield and moving into the domain of refugees, refugee hunters
and protesters. One of the main critiques posed during the initial brainstorming sessions with
colleagues from the political communication and social movements fields was the logic of
separating “online” from “offline” mobilization. Their main argument was that these two
seemingly different modes of mobilization were, in fact, one and the same, and that the digital
modes of mobilization did not fundamentally change the premises and organizational aspects
of social networks during crises. I remain convinced that technology changes crisis
mobilization in two fundamental ways: first, technology significantly reduces the time to
organize and mobilize, and provided that there is enough commitment capital, it can
substantially increase the size of mobilization, making it far more transformative from a
political and social point of view. Second, digital technologies have increased the frequency
of conflict occurrence. (Unver, 2016) Due to the wide reach and speed of digital media,
potential parties to a conflict or crisis became aware of an event in real time and across a
larger geography. When such mobilization captured sufficient levels of commitment capital,
they were able to field more human resources more frequently, thereby increasing the
likelihood of conflict and crisis. Therefore, I retain my view that online and offline
mobilization, as well as digital and traditional networks, must be conceptualized and studied
as different phenomena, even if I study their tandem effect on conflict in this paper.
Digital Social Movements and Political Communication and Mobilization
Through a tandem analysis of online and offline mobilization methods and crisis response,
this paper is intended to make three main contributions to scholarship on political/conflict
communication and crisis mobilization.
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First, I propose that the literature on digital social movements struggles to understand why
certain types of movements succeed and others fail because it does not specifically study how
these digital movements tap into older and traditional modes of mobilization in their
respective domains. Overemphasis on digital tools and communication networks has largely
prevented us from methodologically observing how more established networks such as
religious congregations, coffee houses, universities, or sports clubs adapt to the evolving
dynamics of digital movements. In order to fill this gap, I offer four vignettes from different
phases of a conflict cycle, each corresponding to a different mobilization group, using a
different digital media network, in order to trace how they adapt to changing physical
challenges through a dual reliance on offline and online tools. Often overlooked is the fact
that basic material objects that are regularly used as barricades, weapons, or tear gas no
longer appear in their place in conflict through old modes of communication. These tools are
now being brought to the field increasingly through digital communication. Militants take
selfies to conduct propaganda, which in turn will win them external sponsorship and get them
heavy weapons (such as the YPG in Syria or Azov Battalion in Ukraine) (Regan, 2002; Regan
& Aydin, 2006). Refugees use social media to request help in big cities, which in turn gets a
material response in the form of soup kitchens or freely distributed blankets (Chouliaraki,
2017). This material response can also be negative of course, as I discuss later, which is on
how refugee hunters use the same digital tools as refugees to locate them and try to attain
vigilante justice.
Second, a similar argument goes with traditional networks that cannot adapt to the changing
realities of digital media. If older, pre-existing networks fail to evolve into the digital medium,
they become obsolete and lose their ability to establish and sustain frames. Imams who could
adapt to uncommon media outlets such as Instagram or even Snapchat eventually enjoyed
larger and geographically distributed follower bases, eclipsing older and traditionally better-
established religious leaders (Ellison & Boyd, 2013). These “cyber clerics,” in turn, became
instrumental in religious mobilization in times of crises, doing both good (disaster relief) and
bad (radicalization). Movements must choose tools that will help them get the job done while
keeping in mind that most of the time their adversaries are using similar outlets to counter
these efforts. To that end, most movements that have failed to tip the balance of power
through traditional networks have benefitted immensely from digital networks, eventually
securing an edge over rival pre-existing networks. The Islamic State won the global jihadi
recruitment war over Al Qaeda, largely because of the latter‟s inability to evolve into a digital
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propaganda domain (Hashim, 2014). Hungarian border hunters were able to mobilize faster
than their Serbian counterparts, because they rallied around a mayor László Toroczkai
who was able to seize the digital framing through YouTube and Twitter (Benke, 2017).
Digital evolution of traditional mobilization networks is significantly understudied, and this
gap in the literature has an overall negative effect on our ability to understand both digitally
networked social movements and their success and failure.
Third, I suggest that over time responding to sustained challenges of technology generates
new digital repertoires of mobilization that alter the existing balance of power within
traditional structures of hierarchy. In frontier religious congregations of Hungary and Arizona,
followers with greater technical know-how progress faster in their religious hierarchies,
assuming key gate-keeping roles over that congregation‟s framing and narrative of the crisis.
A similar trend is observable in the political domain, where individuals with obscure
backgrounds rapidly climb the ladders of political promotion, ending up as the digital
propaganda advisors of authoritarian leaders. This, for example, is the case with Vladislav
Surkov in Russia, or Jean-Marie Le Pen‟s Philippe Vardon. The rise of this new “tech-savvy
cohort” of digital propaganda advisors not only changes the political or religious hierarchy
around them, but also the military hierarchy in militant organizations. This was the example
with followers of Abu Ayyub al-Masri the ISIS propaganda leader who died in 2010
during an air raid. Regardless, al-Masri‟s social media strategy was carried on with his
followers, leading to their primus inter pares position in other political groups within the
organization, and to their publication of two ISIS e-journals: Dabiq and Rumiyah. Political
implications of digital propaganda can also be observed among ministers, bureaucrats, and
politicians who run troll or bot farms.
Civil wars in Ukraine and Syria coincided with the rapid proliferation of Facebook, Twitter,
and Instagram as dominant media of social communication. While there were only 54 million
monthly active users on Twitter in Q4 2010, there were 328 million as of Q1 2017, with the
most significant increase taking place between 2011 and 2015 (Perrin, 2015). Likewise, when
Instagram was acquired by Facebook in April 2012, it grew from 30 million users to 500
million by June 2016. The advent of these tools of modern communication changed the nature
of battlefield communication, along with war propaganda.
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In a former research project, I have tested mortality salience (Florian & Mikulincer, 1998;
Greenberg, Arndt, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 2000; Pyszczynski et al., 2006) and
terror management theories (Altheide, 2006; Aly & Striegher, 2012; Basra, Neumann, &
Brunner, 2016) by measuring whether images, framing, and discourse on death and war
indeed increased the likelihood of further conflict. I did that by scraping 5,803 selfies that
were taken by the pro-Kurdish militant group People‟s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, from
January 2014 to December 2016 (H. A. Unver, 2016). While a time-frequency geolocation of
these selfies provides great insight into geographies of contestation, the time-frequency data
alone told an interesting story: while 23 selfies taken in an interval of two hours is nothing
special, once this figure rises substantially to 7080, it indicates preparation for an armed
conflict. Although quantitative measurement of selfies on the battlefield can also be an
accurate predictor of armed conflict, it mainly reveals the extent to which taking a selfie is
one of the main pre-war rituals of militants. Widening the geographical extent of this
research, I have started to use web crawlers to gather digital selfie data from other armed
groups in Syria the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army later expanding this research
into Ukraine. In Ukraine too, non-state armed groups (Vostok Battalion, Russian Orthodox
Army, Aidar Battalion, etc.) frequently use selfies as battlefield propaganda and do so
predominantly before armed clashes.
My interviews with both refugees who had an armed history and officials who had direct
involvement in the rehabilitation of returnee jihadists yielded three dominant themes. First,
many of the militants are teenagers aged 1619, and, thus, they get over-excited on the
battlefield and seek to “make a mark of their greatness” permanently. Many are not afraid of
death, but are afraid of being forgotten. To that end, selfies are one of the main ways of
making sure their acts are not neglected or forgotten. Second, these militants use selfies to
bolster morale and increase group cohesion in order to prepare for an imminent armed clash.
Finally, most of these militants are runaways. Although many are estranged from their
families and friends, they nonetheless purposefully leave the location data on while taking
selfies so that if they die, their families will have some sort of location signature from which
to pick up their dead bodies.
Ultimately, this perspective deals with the use of battlefield selfies in Syria and Ukraine by
non-state armed actors YPG, ISIS, FSA, Vostok & Aidar Battalions, and Russian Orthodox
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Army to explain how these groups use selfies as a digital framing tool through 2014 and
beyond. I define these functions as „militancy lifestyle marketing,‟ „capacity demonstration,‟
and „diversionary selfies.‟ In the earlier phases of an insurgency, militants seek to advertise
themselves and post happy/relaxed selfies to set up group framing and attract new recruits. In
the second phase, these selfies show battlefield victories (usually after a clash) in order to
show off capacity and advertise skills. Finally, militant groups take diversionary selfies to
mislead the opponent or provoke him into committing militarily to the wrong battle.
This debate also spills over into the refugee use of digital technologies in political crises.
Monzer Omar was a Syrian refugee who fled the horrors of the Siege of Hama in August
2013. He left his family behind, since the road to Europe was too dangerous. Monzer
traversed Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, and finally arrived in
Germany. He used a plethora of digital apps that aided him in navigation, news gathering,
communication, and medical aid, while he dealt with smugglers, aid groups, and security
enforcement officials. (Shapiro, 2015) It took him four years to reunite with his family in
January 2017, following years of both online and offline awareness-building and legal
procedures, including agenda-setting on social media and frequent contacts with local legal
and political officials in Dortmund, Germany, both in-person and through their Twitter
New Media and Refugees
Monzer‟s story is by no means unique. In the summer of 2015, thousands of refugees fleeing
from war in Syria flocked into Budapest‟s main train station. This was the fourth foreign
country refugees had crossed, covering about 2,500 kilometres within several weeks. The
logistics of moving such a large group of people, in a relatively short period of time and
without a central authority leading the exodus are immensely difficult. It was Nina Kov a
Hungarian artist who first diagnosed the need for multilingual refugee apps with local
information and created InfoAid, which catered to users with limited data plans and included
a diverse set of refugee information such as train timetables, clean water outlets, and
pharmacies in Budapest. (Eddy, 2015) Meanwhile in Croatia around the same period, Valent
Turkovic developed makeshift cheap Wi-Fi routers called “MeshPoint” so that refugees could
access life-saving information even in places without a static Wi-Fi router. (Wall & Mulligan,
2015) The app portfolio for refugees proliferated significantly since then, generating its own
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market, with localized information and multilingual support. Maps, doctor-free diagnostics,
family/friend discovery tools, and real-time translation apps are just some variants of this
booming market. The booming market, on the other hand, creates a new digital network that
not only Syrian refugees, but all displaced people in the world and those that seek to help
them participate in and benefit from.
Refugees are perhaps among the oldest forms of organized non-state networks. They are as
old as human conflict itself, occupy a central place in human history, and have been amply
theorized on within a plethora of social disciplines, from philosophy to religion. More
contemporary approaches to refugees cluster around the nodes of the effects of social/cultural
dislocation on human behaviour (Chaichian, 2015; Diamond, 1998; Ravenstein, 1885), as
well as the effects of technology on migration (Banerjee, 1983; Fortunati, 2013). Digital
networks of refugees went hand in hand with static and mobile physical networks during this
major refugee movement. Static physical networks were camps, communes, and squats,
whereas mobile networks resembled the “fellowship of the ring” in The Lord of the Rings
trilogy, with different groups and figures entering and exiting the quest at different times.
Static offline networks reflect a pause in a refugee‟s journey; they are static either because
they are in a camp, a temporary commune, or a housing compound they have settled into
recently. Static refugee networks interact with digital networks on issues such as legal identity
establishment/protection (biometric data), local settlement information (housing, establishing
a business, and setting up finances), or legal settlement information (registration). Mobile
refugee networks are transient in nature and usually temporary; it is unlikely that refugees that
travel together end up settling together. This means that the basic unit of refugee networks is
not always the family. Quite often, relatives can be lost on the way, which brings in the most
immediate necessity of digital networks and apps that help refugees find family members.
“Refunite” was one of the most famous of these apps, created by Danish brothers David and
Christopher Mikkelssen. (Munford, 2017) Further needs of a mobile refugee network revolve
around real-time communications (Whatsapp and also encrypted variants such as Telegram)
and real-time intelligence (avoiding smugglers, finding healthcare, weather information, and
The overwhelming majority of successful refugee cases reflect skillful deployment of offline
networks (such as aid groups, refugee camp administrators, and local officials who physically
aid refugee movement or settlement) and online networks (apps, forums, and social media).
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For example, while it was information apps that directed refugees to help points, their ability
to actually reach those points was usually made possible by physical interlocutors
smugglers, local enforcement officials, or aid groups.
Same technologies that allowed refugees to survive and connect also worked for the opposite
side: border hunters and anti-refuge vigilante groups. Sandor Jankovics joined the Hungarian
“border hunter” regiment in March 2017, following his friend Adrienn Heronyanyi, who had
joined earlier, in 2015. (Than, 2017) Both young men joined the specially formed unit upon
the rallying cry of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who described the flow of
Syrian refugees as the Trojan Horse of terrorism.” (Gorondi, 2017) Hungary had erected a
long fence along its southern border, after thousands of Syrian refugees poured in through the
summer of 2015. According to Eurostat, Hungary topped the list of EU countries that received
the highest number of asylum requests per 100,000 local population as of 2015, (“Asylum
Quarterly Report” 2017) explaining some of the zeal with which the southern border was
„protected.‟ Hungarian border police had shocked international observers in September 2015,
when they launched tear gas and sprayed water on the refugees along the border, aiming to
deter future influxes. The refugee crisis for Hungarian border hunters was a crisis of national
security, for which they mobilized.
In early April 2016, Frank Dohnányi, a rural “border hunter,” told Al Jazeera that a mere
“border fence” was not enough to stop refugees, which made it necessary to mobilize the
border hunter regiment through digital means. (Mohdin, 2017) Dohnányi was using InfoAid,
the app created by another Hungarian Nina Kov to track refugee flow. InfoAid was
designed to help the refugees, but the warnings posted in the app also made border hunters‟
job easier. Upon detecting movement and transit tips on InfoAid, Dohnányi could
communicate with other border hunters in the adjacent rural areas (and even on the other side
of the border in Serbia) to coordinate a crackdown. The cooperation between Hungarian and
Serbian volunteers followed a religious logic defending Christian Europe which was
outlined at the highest level in an Orban op-ed in Germany‟s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
"We shouldn't forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and
represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim ... That is an
important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots".
(Karnitschnig, 2015).
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Laszlo Toroczkai, the mayor of the border town of Asotthalom, took the idea of digitally
defending Christianity to another level. As the founder of the ultra-nationalist “64 Counties
Youth Movement,” Toroczkai frequently posts images and videos of captured refugees.
(“Hungarian radical right wing youth movement enjoys public financing,” 2014) On March 7,
2016, he took things a notch further by putting up a video of three refugees captured in
cooperation with Serbian border patrol, which he stated was done through social media.
According to Toroczkai, although funding for more “official” border hunters comes from the
government, in more rural and remote areas, citizens fund their own patrol units. The funding
for these units is derived from the rural Hungarian Catholic church network, which acts as
both the ideological overseer of the border hunters, as well as the main financing network of
their operations.
On the other side of the world, in the United States, Jim Gilchrist the founder of the
Minuteman Project asserted a similar line:
Those Syrian refugees, who we are supposedly vetting thoroughly, come from camps
run by the United Nations. There are no Christians in those camps. They risked death
if they seek refuge there. So the refugees who are on the list, who get on the list, they
are almost entirely Muslim. The UN system accepted by Mr. Obama effectively locks
Christians out. (Mohdin, 2015)
The Minuteman Project was established in 2004, following an overall sense of self-reported
frustration in Arizona against illegal immigration. In 2005, around 1,200 volunteers were
recruited to “defend” the Arizona border, some of whom returned to Utah to establish the
Utah Minuteman Project. The Minuteman Project was built upon similar foundations as the
Hungarian border hunters: the protection of national (also religious) identity against an
overwhelming influx of refugees. For the Hungarians, this influx consisted of the Syrian
refugees; for the Minuteman Project, it was mainly the Mexicans. Although the Syrian
refugees were predominantly Muslim and Mexican immigrants were Catholics, this did not
change the overarching response against a similar stimulus both in Hungary and in the United
States. In May 2015, the Minuteman Project declared “war” (Operation Normandy) on what it
called the “porous areas” between San Diego, CA, and Brownsville, TX. (Cesca, 2014) “If
you are familiar with the Normandy invasion of France in 1944, then you have an idea how
large and logistically complicated this event will be,” Gilchrist stated on the project website.
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“However, there is one difference. We are not going to the border to invade anyone. We are
going there to stop an invasion.”
The paradox of the Minuteman Project lay in its discursive reliance on “Christian soul,” while
it acted as a border protection unit against Mexican immigrants. This religious caveat is
interesting as in November 2010 Utah Minuteman Project chairman Eli Cawley condemned a
bill easing restrictions on immigration: “The issue is cheap illegal alien labor and church
membership, and everyone knows it.” He implied that Mexican cheap labor was as
problematic as adding numbers to Utah Catholic churches, challenging Mormon-Catholic
demographics there. The same motive exists in Arizona where the Evangelical Protestant base
(26%) is challenged by Catholic incomers (21%), mostly from Mexico.
Although the project entered an interregnum in 2010, it still recruits large numbers of
volunteers to patrol the Arizona border. With the election of Donald Trump, the group even
got a much-needed lifeline into the political mainstream, evidenced by the note “Trump Wins!
Minuteman Project Mission Accomplished!” displayed on the group‟s website. A newly
formed Arizona Border Recon a group that organized in Mormon and Protestant churches
there was especially skilled in the use of digital media. Although Jim Gilchrist himself has a
low follower base on Twitter, anti-immigration and Minuteman-affiliated accounts have
proliferated after the election of President Trump, enjoying far larger support bases. Many of
these accounts are connected through a large network of local opinion-makers and are
connected to alt-right figures in other parts of the United States and even in Europe. Through
a dual mobilization in Evangelical and Protestant rural churches, and social media, the
Minuteman Project resembles mobilization dynamics of Hungarian border hunters. One major
difference is that while Minutemen thrive in a social media environment, Hungarian border
hunters usually exploit apps designed to help refugees. Although these two types of anti-
immigration mobilization are directed against different religious groups and nationalities as
well, the adoption of the religious discourse, along with relevant rural/frontier churches,
makes these groups comparable in terms of digital/traditional networks in crisis mobilization.
This perspective offers a “technology and conflict” contribution to the theoretical strands of
private enforcement of laws (vigilantism) (Navarro, 2008; Tyner, 2012), anti-refugee far-right
extremism (Koehler, 2016; Lazaridis, Campani, & Benveniste, 2016; Tinti & Reitano, 2017),
and the concept of “productive other,” where invented external enemies help consolidate
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group cohesion and mobilization (Barsky, 1994). Although offline mobilization dynamics of
these theories are well-established, a comparative inquiry into how modern technologies and
digital interconnectedness affect them is still an under-studied domain.
Alihan KuriĢ is a 34-year-old architect and is also the chief imam of the Süleymancı
congregation in Istanbul. Süleymancıs are a sub-denomination of the Naqshibandiyya
movement within Sufi Islam and were established in 1888 in Silistra, Bulgaria, to set up local
Ottoman-Muslim resistance against Bulgarian separatists. These Süleymancı networks
operated through a tight-knit mosque network that communicated through calls to prayer
(adhan) in order to warn other towns and villages in case of a brigand attack. While churches
and church bells worked for similar purposes in the prolonged conflicts of the 19th-century
Balkans, what made Süleymancı mobilization different than Bulgarian-Orthodox (and other
Christian) variants was its extremely elaborate set of personal connections that reached the
Sultan‟s Palace in Constantinople. A Süleymancı frontier imam was regarded as a “mujahid,”
who was tasked with protecting the frontiers of the empire against rebels and, in that capacity,
could send privileged messengers directly to the capital, and the imperial palace in the
absence of alternative connections to the frontier towns took frontier messengers more
seriously than those who came from other parts of the empire. Over more than a century,
Süleymancıs – along with other Sufi congregations from other parts of the empire retreated
as the empire lost its Balkan provinces, eventually establishing their headquarters in different
parts of Turkey. For Süleymancıs, this was the Fatih district the seat of a once-formidable
empire. From there, Süleymancıs communicated with other brotherhoods within Anatolia and
retained a strong political interest.
On the night of July 15, 2016, Alihan KuriĢ received reports of some military movement on
Istanbul‟s Bosphorus Bridge. Like all Sufi brotherhoods, Süleymancıs also have followers
from all parts of Istanbul; when a suspicious activity takes place, it is communicated within
the ranks of the congregation‟s hierarchy. If the suspicious activity is indeed serious, it is
delivered to the chief imam for a decision that will concern the entire ranks of the
brotherhood. Alihan KuriĢ was spooked, since similar reports of military movements came
from other parts of Istanbul as well. Fearing a coup attempt, he ordered all of his followers to
“pour into the streets” using SMS, Whatsapp, and posting wait for it a Snapchat video!
Since Snapchat videos are deleted after a set period of time, Islamic brotherhoods increasingly
adapted to that social medium to communicate sensitive information to the followers, without
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any risk of these videos being used as evidence against them in court. Within 30 minutes,
Süleymancı followers started to concentrate in three areas where soldiers established
defensive positions: Bosphorus Bridge, Taksim Square, and Istanbul Central Police
Headquarters. In the next hour, Süleymancıs in Ankara mobilized as well, also overruning key
checkpoints of the rogue soldiers and others in Ġzmir, Bursa, Diyarbakır, and Adana, and
poured into the streets in defiance. Simultaneously, leymancıs who were already at the
flashpoint locations started sharing photos and videos on Instagram and Twitter, calling on
others to come to their assistance. Within minutes, media shared by leymancıs spread like
wildfire on social media, becoming the #1 trending topic in Turkey. Soon after, other
dominant Sufi brotherhoods Ġsmailağa, Menzil, Cerrahi, and UĢĢaki – too were on the
streets, attempting to overwhelm military defensive positions.
All of this religious-digital networking took place before Turkey‟s ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP) district networks could mobilize. As President Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım were isolated with communications cut off, AKP
networks were paralyzed. Indeed, my earlier co-authored geospatial study (H. A. Unver &
Alassaad, 2016) revealed that, contrary to the prevalent view in the literature, it was not AKP
or Erdoğan who saved the day it was these religious networks, which worked in tandem
with the latest social media outlets to spread and deepen the call to mobilize. These
brotherhoods continued to use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Vine, and Snapchat for the
following week to set the agenda on anti-coup mobilization, successfully generating,
orchestrating, and logistically managing a large group of anti-coup protesters.
What happened in Istanbul that night was a warning call to scholars who over-emphasized the
role of digital media in protests, especially with regard to the literature on the Arab Spring.
Although an overwhelming majority of Arab Spring social movements and popular
mobilization literature focused on the role of social media, few studies looked at how old
cultural networks such as the mosques, coffee houses, and madrasas contributed to these
movements. In critiquing the “digitalist” trend within the Arab Spring literature, scholars such
as Kat Eghdamian (2014), Seyla Benhabib (2014), and Michael Hoffman and Amaney Jamal
(2014) have challenged this narrative, arguing that mosques were silent but central drivers of
the Arab Spring. Eghdamian, in particular, makes a convincing case that mosque networks
acted as anchors across socio-economic strata, unified grievances, and legitimized and helped
support popular mobilization. Although convincing, these arguments often lack empirical
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evidence, mostly because there has not been enough measurable data on how mosque
networks operate in relation to digital media in times of crises. Collective action requires a
sudden, yet sustainable increase in participants, along with staying power, none of which can
occur without strong motivation. This is why, although social media is important in terms of
spreading a message and organizing a movement, its participants have to be already dedicated
to remaining in the movement for a long period of time, and why, especially in the case of the
Arab Spring movement in Egypt, motivating factors, and particularly the religious discourse
in creating that motivation, have been severely understudied.
The challenge of digital technologies on politics is usually diagnosed within the domain of
attention economies. Attention economics takes human attention as a finite resource and
models human response to information within econometric variables. As human
communication spills over into digital platforms, the sheer size and volume of content and
information produced by and within these platforms naturally exceed human capacity to
understand, process and respond. Further stress is incurred upon human cognitive and
emotional response mechanisms as trolls (human users) and bots (automated non-human
actors) lead to significant distraction and information flooding online. This is especially true
within the domain of politics. During election campaign periods or episodes of international
crises, tactics and methods of information flooding usually exploit attention economies.
Political institutions, engagement and networks too, are increasingly determined by digital
interaction. Digital-savvy politicians reach wider audiences and thus make a larger impact
upon their voters compared to offline politicians. In March 2017, Facebook launched „Town
Hall‟, a new feature that will allow users to locate, follow and contact their local, state and
federal government representatives. Soon after, the feature was made available to desktop and
mobile users, with News Feed integration. Later on, Facebook added „Constituent Insights‟
add-on, which is offered to officials to keep in touch with their constituents online.
All of this creates a new platform between politicians, voters and political engagement
processes. As this paper sought to demonstrate, a wide range of non-state actors are
challenging state authority and carving out „digital independences‟. These independences both
generate a new framework for cyber-feudalism, where such independences are overlooked by
states in exchange for service, or cyber-grayzones, where state authority cannot enter or hold,
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and thus engages in a never-ending cycle of conflict with states. Both state and non-state actor
networks have immense potential to corrupt, spoil and provoke political communication
processes by means of information flooding and distraction. These digital communication
spoilers have immense potential to generate, sustain and escalate crises, both within domestic
settings (like protests, riots or parliamentary voting sessions) and international settings
(diplomatic crises and war). (Unver, 2017)
There are two alternative choices that this digital political momentum can lead to. First, states
and their non-state actor collaborators can choose to go through the spoiler-oriented scenario,
where fake-news, bots and trolls become common practice in domestic and foreign
interactions. As states proliferate their information flooding capacities online, digital political
communication becomes „more impossible‟ with main platforms like Twitter and Facebook
cease to retain their relevance and importance in political affairs. Large troll and bot armies
dominate online interactions as true political information becomes a scarce commodity,
generating its own blackmarkets. Losing their platform in visible spaces, most political
discussion will then go underground, where it will be bought and sold in private digital
spaces. The second option is to come up with a digital culture whereby both state and non-
state origin spoilers are kept to a minimum through regulation. Regulating digital space is in
and of itself a political question that requires democracy and inclusive participation and can
neither be left to the whims of state, nor tech companies. It is only through transparent and
inclusive participation that an online information political culture can be established. As with
any communication revolution, the advent of social media platforms have to adapt to shifts in
human political communication and establish its own equilibrium as a product of human
interaction itself.
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