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stochastic terrorism

Posted: Tue Aug 13, 2019 9:56 pm
by Ken Greenwald
<2019 “In March, a far-right gunman murdered 51 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — and left behind a document describing Muslim immigrants as ‘invaders’ and Trump as ‘a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.’ And now, this latest massacre in El Paso [[add Dayton]]. Let’s be clear: In an age of rising domestic terrorism cases — the majority of which are motivated by ‘white supremacist violence,’ according to FBI Director Christopher Wray — Trump is nothing less than a threat to our collective security. More and more commentators now refer, for example, to the phenomenon of ‘stochastic terrorism” — originally defined by an anonymous blogger back in 2011 as ‘the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.’”— TheIntercept.com, 4 August.>
I had never heard this expression before and many dictionaries have not yet included it:

Dictionary.com

On Saturday, August 3, a gunman in El Paso, Texas, took the lives of 22 people and injured many more. The next morning, another shooter claimed 9 victims in Dayton, Ohio.

As people were processing these massacres, many turned to the dictionary. We observed lookups for one term, stochastic terrorism, surge 63,389% on August 4, as compared to the week prior.

stochastic terrorism: The public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.

Here’s the idea behind stochastic terrorism:

1) A leader or organization uses rhetoric in the mass media against a group of people.

2) This rhetoric, while hostile or hateful, doesn’t explicitly tell someone to carry out an act of violence against that group, but a person, feeling threatened as a result, is motivated to do so as a result.

3) That individual act of political violence can’t be predicted as such, but that violence will happen is much probable thanks to the rhetoric.

4) This rhetoric is thus called ‘stochastic terrorism’ because of the way it incites random violence.

Note: Search interest in stochastic terrorism appears to have been influenced by Juliette Kayyem, who previously served in the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs.

Among other instances, Kayyem notably used the term stochastic terrorism on Twitter, on CNN, and in an op-ed for the Washington Post to discuss the El Paso shooter, President Donald Trump, and white supremacy.

Before the attack, the shooter appears to have posted what’s widely being called a ‘screed,’ containing racist, anti-immigrant language and ideas that, some are arguing, directly echo Trump’s rhetoric (e.g., an ‘invasion’ of immigrants). Kayyem, and others in recent days, have characterized Trump’s rhetoric as stochastic terrorism. As Kayyem wrote in the Washington Post:
Public speech that may incite violence, even without that specific intent, has been given a name: stochastic terrorism, for a pattern that can’t be predicted precisely but can be analyzed statistically. It is the demonization of groups through mass media and other propaganda that can result in a violent act because listeners interpret it as promoting targeted violence — terrorism. And the language is vague enough that it leaves room for plausible deniability and outraged, how-could-you-say-that attacks on critics of the rhetoric.
Origin: While evidence for the term dates back to at least 2002, the term stochastic terrorism, as we are using here, spreads in the 2010s, popularly credited to a blog post in 2011 [[see quote below]]. Terrorism experts, security analysts, and political observers have been increasingly using the term stochastic terrorism in the late 2010s, especially in terms of how rhetoric from political and religious leaders inspires random extremists, typically young men considered to be radicalized by ISIS or white supremacist groups.

We are no strangers, alas, to significant spikes in search for stochastic terrorism. The term trended up over 9,000% last October on Dictionary.com amid discussion of the news that bombs were being mailed to Democratic leaders.
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The following are some related quotes garnered from a Google search:
<2011 “Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. This is what occurs when Bin Laden releases a video that stirs random extremists halfway around the globe to commit a bombing or shooting.”—DailyKos.com, 10 January> [[This appears to be where the expression was coined.]]

<2016 “Trump’s 2nd Amendment comment wasn’t a joke. It was ‘stochastic terrorism."—Vox.com, 11 August> [[Trump: If Clinton picks judges, "nothing you can do, folks -- although the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is." The Clinton campaign and other Trump opponents rejected Trump campaign's explanation and blamed the GOP nominee for suggesting violence as a possible means of preventing Clinton from appointing judges if she is elected president.]]

<2019 “Stochastic Terrorism: Acts of violence by random extremists, triggered by political demagoguery: When President Trump tweeted a video of himself body-slamming the CNN logo in 2017, most people took it as a stupid joke. For Cesar Sayoc, it may have been a call to arms: Last October the avowed Trump fan allegedly mailed a pipe bomb to CNN headquarters. No one told Sayoc to do it, but the fact that it happened was really no surprise.
In 2011, after the shooting of US representative Gabby Giffords, a Daily Kos blog warned of a new threat the writer called stochastic terrorism: the use of mass media to incite attacks by random nut jobs—acts that are ‘statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.’ The writer had in mind right-wing radio and TV agitators, but in 2016, Rolling Stone accused then-candidate Trump of using the same playbook when he joked that ‘Second Amendment people’ might ‘do’ something if Hillary Clinton won the election. Of course, Trump’s people later said he meant they might … ‘vote.’ That’s how it works: Stochastic terrorism lets bullies operate in the open with full deniability, since the random element erases any provable causation.”—Wired.com, 1 January>

<2019 “It is long past time for Americans to hold Trump accountable. Trump’s rhetoric, fitting what some researchers call ‘stochastic terrorism’, has emboldened white supremacists to violence.”—TheGuardian.com, 10 August>
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Ken Greenwald – August 13, 2019

Re: stochastic terrorism

Posted: Wed Aug 14, 2019 12:12 pm
by tony h
Ah! Stochastic is the new, cool word for random.

At work w used to reserve stochastic for probabilistic results that varied with time. Most of us came across it within Monte Carlo methods applied to any number of real world problems.

I guess that soon we will have stochastic advertising. Being: advertising that causes a predictable increase in sales from individually unpredictable purchases. Stochastic child rearing!

Re: stochastic terrorism

Posted: Wed Aug 14, 2019 3:30 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Ken Greenwald wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 9:56 pm
Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. [...] DailyKos.com, 10 January 2019
I am not keen on this novel usage. I get the point being made by the coiner of the term, but as Tony suggests, the potential range of this kind of application of 'stochastic' is so broad as to make it effectively meaningless.

There are lots of things we do every day that will generate a statistically probable effect from unpredictable specifics — for instance, the morning commute into a big city will result in some crashes whose total falls within a statistically predictable range. But it would add nothing to our understanding of that fact to start using the expression 'stochastic driving' or 'stochastic commuting'. On the contrary, it would elicit puzzlement and confusion.

The concept that the coiner of 'stochastic terrorism' was trying to crystallize with that term is a useful one, but it is already covered by the existing term 'incitement of terrorism'; the relaying of the incitement through a medium of mass communication can be assumed.

In sum, 'stochastic terrorism' is a groovy-sounding coinage, but I think it's confusing rather than enlightening.