The Return of the Skull Mask

a person wearing a skull mask

Old fans of the blog may recall that I ran a series once that highlighted instances of soldiers across the globe wearing the now ubiquitous “skull mask.”

It was – and still is – a weird phenomenon.

The December issue of the “Sentinel” (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point) ran an article titled The Iron March Forum and the Evolution of the “Skull Mask” Neo-Fascist Network.

It’s a fascinating deep-dive into the origins of a disaggregated global extremist network. This isn’t a topic I normally spend a lot of time researching, but I found myself pulled into the research. It’s well done and one of the most “academic” papers I’ve read recently.

There were a few things that stood out which likely have application and relevance in others areas.

Some excerpts:

On the way that online communitites can forge strong bonds – over time – through shared interests. Fandom?

Specialized online communities, whether focused on Traditionalist neo-fascism or on model trains, aggregate groups of people with shared interests and values, and facilitate the formation of both personal relationships and collective identities through sustained interaction over time, requiring only that members share a common language.

Another example:

A group of users on the U.S. East Coast organized an online tabletop role-playing game group in which Iron March users played Dungeons & Dragons and a Star Wars game together.

On the challenge of translating online activity into real-world activism. This is something I’ve seen before (Egypt).

Offline activism was strongly encouraged by Iron March leadership, but members of the Iron March community appear to have been alienated from existing local neo-fascist organizations because of ideological differences, intra-movement conflict about tactics, and cultural differences between members of established neo-fascist organizations and young people steeped in internet-based subcultures.

The above – concerning internet-based subcultures and their inability to mesh with established “real world” communities reminds me of another research paper I recently read. This one is titled Gen-Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem. It explores the ways that internet meme culture – specifically alt-right meme culture – is being appropriated and used by a younger generation of “digital salafists.”

I’m skeptical if any of this means anything if significance. But I’m sure it means something.

Both paper are fascinating and relevant to anyone studying modern underground extremist movements.

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It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

Train explosion from Lawrence of Arabia film
No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Our political and cultural narrative is being shaped by memes

In conversations lately, I’ve noticed how much of what I’m hearing sounds eerily familiar to memes and nonsense that I see widely shared on social media. This is especially true when it comes to political and cultural issues. I’ll say one thing, and be retorted with something I saw recently online – often some soundbite that is impossible to disprove in an argument or some emotion-laden appeal.

To put it another way, what do you think is having a greater effect in this year’s Presidential election – political advertising or viral memes?

Then, a friend posted this article from the Chicago Tribune which confirms the suspicion:

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

It’s a wild, brave new world. And we’re still figuring it out.

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