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Security-related Threat: Migration of Ideas (Part 2)

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In the previous article, we described our approach to the concept of the migration of ideas; that different ideas which spread through various types of media may manifest themselves in violence. The example given was the riots in various places in Sweden during Easter 2022. They led to injured police officers and police cars in flames; damage costing millions. Moreover, they led to the imprisonment of many young men – costly both to them and to society.

What is known is that these Easter riots were stirred up within Muslim immigrant communities. One would think that there was one single obvious reason for people to get angry when the authorities “allow” the burning of the Quran (in accordance with the right to freedom of speech), but it is a noticeable fact that the same person who burned the Quran at Easter 2022 had previously arranged other burnings of the Quran in various places in Sweden without receiving the same strong reaction.

The research done by FOI regarding the disinformation campaign against the Swedish social services stated that the Easter riots were the result of strong reactions to the burning of the Quran, but not driven by any undue influence of information against Sweden. The follow-up investigation into the police work during the riots did not find any evidence of organization behind the riots.

Source: SVT - Riots in several cities (Apr 15, 2022; updated: Jan 8, 2024; retrieved: Jan 15, 2024)

However, the burning of the Quran got a lot of attention in Arab-speaking media. Several people from within the disinformation campaign made multiple posts about how the Swedish police gave permission to and protected the extremists who burned the Quran. In media and social media there was a fierce mood for quite some time after the Easter riots, and there were strong condemnations of the permissions given to demonstrate with the aim of burning the Quran. This mood was maintained by the leading figures in the disinformation campaign against the Young People’s Care Act.

This shows that there is lots more to learn and explain about social and political movements who nowadays have a global arena to spread their messages and propaganda by the internet by the internet. However, it is far beyond the scope of our work go through research results in the vast area of the so-called Social Movement theory, nor all available evaluation about riots and their causes.

CRiTERIA and the Global Medial Movements

We consider our remit is to find out the best use of the automated cross-media analysis technologies that the CRiTERIA project offer analysts within the Swedish Police. We want to examine circumstances that may determine whether the information generated by CRiTERIA constitutes noise or may be of particular interest to the threat/risk analyst. This way we hope to be able to determine threat-risk levels for significant indicators within the media flow.

With this limited scope in mind, we decided to explore some of the largest global medial movements that came to mind from approximately 20 years back, known to have created significant violent riots in various places. From that time, approx. 60% of the Swedish population used the internet on a daily basis and could be exposed to global media events that could possibly arouse emotions. We wanted to study how an idea, mainly with some political societal overarching importance, that has been put into the public domain anywhere in the physical world, can grow, change, be transformed and affect people and law enforcement across the globe.

Context and Triggering Events

In the previous article, we started out from the work of professor Michael Björk, who has identified a number of factors involved in the eruption and spreading of urban rioting ; Björk, however, has a narrow scope when it comes to context. To us, context appears to have high face validity, given the Easter riot videos circulating on social media, the loud chanting of religious words and the connotations these words carry.

In the previous text, we wrote, as suggested by Björck, that, before a riot, there was always some kind of triggering event. The level to which the trigger reaches depends on the context created around the event in society. Context strongly influences the outcome of a triggering event and is consequently added in the following examples.

Central Factors

The most important factors of context that we have encountered concerning violent rioting relate to race, religion and ethnicity. These overarching factors which appear to play a decisive role in many of the riot situations that we have looked at – ethnicity and religion in particular – are intertwined and cannot always be separated from each other. Triggering events that involve these overarching factors and then “land” in a physical context populated by people with a propensity for a hostile belief system and harboring feelings of exclusion from and resentment toward mainstream society are most at risk of erupting in violence. Furthermore, we have discerned that socioeconomically disadvantaged areas where the population is mainly immigrants living together away from mainstream society constitute the greatest risk for such violent eruptions. These are complex social issues and we do not intend to minimize or skip over problems; we intend only to offer a starting point and a way forward in analysis of risks, for a possible start of thinking of how society, in cooperation, can reduce these risks.

Example #1: France 2005

context: race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic factors

Several teenage boys of north African descent and of the Muslim faith were on their way home in a Paris suburb after having played soccer. A burglary was reported and the police came looking for the perpetrators. When they saw the police, the boys ran and hid; three of them hid in a power station where two accidentally got electrocuted Their deaths led to widespread protests and riots all over France, and a state of emergency was declared after some weeks.

We believe that this is an example where a triggering event – the deaths of the two boys – led to rioting via a spiraling of opinions within the framework of a hostile belief system: According to the media, these suburbs of Paris are considered socially disadvantaged areas. The population there consists of mainly black or brown people mainly of the Muslim faith – people who feel that they are not accepted by, or can access mainstream society’s opportunities and feel generally maltreated by the police.

Source: BBC News - France battens down (Nov 12, 2005, retrieved: Jan 15, 2024)

Example #2: Stockholm (Husby) 2013

context: ethnicity, religion, socio-economic factors

A man of foreign extraction who had threatened people with a knife was shot and killed by the police during an arrest. The police first communicated that the man had died in hospital, which was soon discovered not to be correct; he had died in the apartment of the arrest.

A civic organisation started a campaign on Twitter accusing the Police of using excess violence and lying. The organisation also held in-person meetings; here, the spiraling phase was operating both IRL and on social media.

A couple of days after the triggering event, riots broke out in the Stockholm suburb of Husby – designated as a socio-economically disadvantaged area – when a police patrol was attacked by local youth while responding to a call. The rioting and burning of cars etc. spread. More than 400 incidents were reported in the following weeks, mostly taking place in immigrant residential areas.

Source: Dagens Nyheter - Riots and Fires in Husby (May 20, 2013, retrieved: Jan 15, 2024)

Example #3: USA 2020 #BlackLivesMatter

context: race, socio-economic factors

The triggering event for the starting of widespread riots was the killing of George Floyd by police.

The Black Lives Matter movement is an umbrella entity for various movements that concern race; it has been in existence since 2013, when the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was started on Twitter.

At the time of the killing of George Floyd, there already existed in society a discussion of racial identity, inclusion, privilege etc. Here, the triggering event took place in a social situation that goes back to the colonial era. Leading up to the triggering event, there had been several killings of black men by law enforcement. Thus, there was a context of strong emotional charge when the triggering event took place.

The strong social media presence of BLM made it possible for the emotions stirred up by Floyd’s killing to spread in the U.S. and all the way to Europe (the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland) and Latin America (Brazil), resulting in erupting violence.

Source: CNN - Protests across the globe after George Floyd's death (Jun 13, 2020; retrieved: Jan 15, 2024)

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Niki Ekman

Niki Ekman

Niki Ekman is an intelligence analyst and former police officer of the Swedish Police. She holds a Master's Degree in Law from the University of Stockholm and a Master's Degree in Intelligence Studies from Mercyhurst University (Research intelligence and analysis program).

Carina Axelsson Palmer

Carina Axelsson Palmer

Carina Axelsson Palmer works with development issues at NOA's intelligence unit. She is an intelligence analyst and police officer and holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Intelligence analysis from the University of Manchester and a Philosophy master's degree from the University of Stockholm (Decision, risk and policy analysis program).

Banner image by Timon Studler on Unsplash.