Research

Paper drafts available upon request (conditional upon coauthor permission to share).

Dissertation Project

Governance, Online: How Extremists Use Media to Gain Local Support

How do extremist rebel groups gain and maintain support at the local level? My dissertation brings together over five years of online media data across four rebel organizations in the Middle East and Central Asia to show how territorial control constrains and reshapes the way that rebels use modern media to communicate their message to a more diverse group of potential followers. I introduce a novel theory of rebel media as a local support strategy that draws attention to the increasingly influential role that the changing landscape of communication technology plays in the dynamics of local support. I find that territorial ambitions and control indeed constrains rebel media to more localized, governance-oriented messaging regardless of a group’s ideological commitments. However, this moderating turn isn’t absolute; extremist groups with substantial followings abroad turn to specialization to continue to deliver more extreme, ideologically-driven content. Thus, while the transition to territorial conquest and control may constrain even extreme rebels to more moderate appeals at the local level, it may do little to stem their influence among more ideologically-driven audiences abroad. This finding has important consequences for the way that scholars and policymakers alike address and attempt to counter the growing influence of rebel media both on and off the battlefield in an internet age.

Rebel Organization

Brand Name Extremism: Extremist Organization in a Transnational Age, Working Project

Why do rebel groups engaged in conflicts thousands of miles away from one another join extremist networks that offer them little to no prospects of cooperation or substantial material benefit? Why do extremist leaders co-opt these groups when doing so potentially spreads thin desperately needed external support? This research agenda seeks to explain the logic of transnational extremist movements by introducing a novel theory of “brand name extremism.” Much like their transnational advocacy foils, core extremist organizations co-opt syndicate groups through transnational networks to appeal to fringe audiences otherwise unwilling to take risks to invest in extremism without links to niche issues. On the other hand, syndicate group leaders use allegiance to a transnational extremist network to lock in support within their own organizations while also seeking to monopolize the extremist space in their local market for conflict. Together, these incentives to create and join a transnational extremist network provide the foundation for a common “brand name” that signals a broad-based issue agenda to potential followers and a costly, narrow commitment to a common set of ideological goals to potential competitors. In this project, I explore the causes and consequences of “brand name extremism” on the potential followers of extremist groups, the local conflict theaters of syndicate groups, and the perceptions of threat by common enemies.

Coalition Bargaining and Credible Commitment in Civil War, Working Paper

The process of disaggregating seemingly unitary actors and measuring the effect of group fractionalization on the characteristics of intrastate conflict has come to define the forefront of the civil war literature. However, this turn inward recognizes participants in civil war primarily as military actors – casting aside due consideration of political organization in the construction of rebellion in the process. In this paper, I propose an alternative model of rebel organization that focuses on the political determinants of rebel group formation and their effect on the long-run prospects for peace. Conceptualizing rebel organizations as coalitions of political interests facing differential constraints to cooperation over the course of conflict, I show that the presence of multiple politically independent factions hidden within coalition organizations in a civil war sharply decreases the tenure of peace following a farewell to arms. The number of coalitions also matters; more coalitions corresponds to a steeper decline in the prospects for lasting peace, further supporting the adoption of a political framework to explain unity and fractionalization in civil war.

Rebel Group Behavior

Rebel Propaganda in an Internet Age (with Barbara F. Walter), Revise & Resubmit @ Journal of Peace Research

One of the most compelling developments in civil wars is the expanding use of Internet media by combatants. However, little is known about the strategic use of propaganda in civil wars, and even less about how, when, and why combatants disseminate information on the Internet. We present a novel theoretical framework introducing three reasons why combatants might invest in Internet propaganda and the conditions under which they are more or less likely to do so. Propaganda could be used to recruit soldiers, solicit financing, or as a form of advertising in competition with rival groups. We then introduce a new dataset of online propaganda in civil war that includes every available, downloadable piece of Internet communication produced by every major rebel group in the civil war in Iraq between January 2011 and December 2015. Preliminary analysis suggests the feasibility of each of these theories. The paper closes with some illustrations and evaluations of each of these mechanisms from a review of ISIS propaganda.

Rebel Radicalization and Recruitment in an Internet Age (with Barbara F. Walter and Tamar Mitts), Working Paper

Between 2011 and 2016, the Islamic State successfully convinced tens of thousands of individuals around the world to join its ranks. Many attribute this surge in foreign recruits to the group’s sophisticated internet media campaigns – thousands of propaganda materials that were widely disseminated on the internet. Currently, however, there is very little empirical analysis of what was marketed in ISIS’s propaganda, what messages resonated with potential recruits, and what types of content were more likely to radicalize. This project breaks ground in research on internet propaganda and radicalization in several ways. Using video-as-data object detection and automated audio-to-text transcription algorithms, we uncover recruitment messages in propaganda produced by ISIS between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2016. We identify the disseminations of these materials in a large dataset of Islamic State sympathizers on Twitter. Employing information on network connections, we find users who were exposed to propaganda, and study how exposure shaped their subsequent online behavior. Our findings show that propaganda content relating to grievances, ideology, and the material and social desires of potential recruits was highly effective at increasing online support for ISIS. Strikingly, however, these messages became largely ineffective when propaganda included violent imagery. These findings suggest that what attracted many individuals to ISIS was not the brutal violence that made the group so famous, but the messages in its propaganda that conveyed the material, spiritual, and social benefits of recruitment.

Extreme Violence and Repression

Swords before Ploughshares: Extreme Repression in the Shadow of Civil War (with Dogus Aktan & Alex Stephenson), Working Paper

Why do weak leaders employ extreme repression when doing so risks the outbreak of potentially devastating civil war? Over the past three decades, scholars have expanded our understanding of repression as a multi-faceted tool of leaders facing internal threats to political survival, with many exploring the ability of autocrats to signal a commitment to punish dissidents who are uncertain of a leader’s resolve or capabilities through varying degrees of violent coercion. This study flips this mechanism on its head, focusing instead on how autocrats employ repression when they are uncertain of their own capability to sustain violent coercion in future periods. We use a formal model of repression in the shadow of popular unrest with one sided incomplete information to show that weak leaders can rationally "over-repress'' a population. Leaders may inadvertently signal their weakness by resorting to unsustainable strongman tactics and trigger extended civil conflict without any changes to the underlying distribution of power between leaders and dissidents. We illustrate this mechanism through a case study of the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and generalize this finding to a cross case analysis of extreme repression from 1972 to the present.