External Affairs

Dissent, Social Marketing and the Long Tail of Terror

For a government that understands the power of social marketing, India’s Kanhaiya moment carries some useful lessons on how not to deal with dissent

By using the Internet's potential, terrorists can tap into a long tail of disaffected recruits. Credit: Josh Tallett CC BY 2.0/Flickr

By using the Internet’s potential, terrorists can tap into a long tail of disaffected recruits. Credit: Josh Tallett CC BY 2.0/Flickr

Almost twelve years ago, Chris Anderson in “The Long Tail” laid out how products having low demand concentrations, in effect, constituted a market share that far exceeded the sales volumes  of the best-sellers and blockbusters sold through traditional brick and mortar retailing.

However, tapping into this market was a problem because given the high expenses of logistics, rentals and limited shelf space, the cost-benefit of keeping large inventories of best-selling products far outweighed that of low demand products. Struggling with this handicap the traditional marketing model had to fall back on expensive advertising and marketing campaigns to narrow down consumer choices by channelizing demand toward limited potential bestsellers. That was a cost effective way of keeping and intensive high cost distribution networks adequately and predictably supplied to match the demand generated. Producers of goods, art, and popular culture concentrated on creating mega-brands that competed to capture eyeballs and attention for the limited shelf space of traditional retailing.

Anderson then went on to predict that the success of e-tailing would lie in its ability to move beyond the constraints imposed by the hump of the demand curve to tap into the long tails on either side. These cumulatively made up a far larger and seemingly endless customer base that remained unsatisfied because of its diversified and fragmented demand. By creating low-cost virtual supply chains having zero inventory costs undreamt of in traditional marketing, e-tailing carried the allure of being able to link fringe producers with fringe consumers. This could exponentially expand markets as endless quantities of niche products for an equally endless universe of niche buyers in a market that gave consumers unlimited choice. The winners were those who used e-tailing to chase these huge but diversified volumes on both sides of the bell curve – volumes that extended far and deep into the long tail.

Currently e-tailing giants are yet to get there. They at best pursue a hybrid model – still largely concentrated on competing and beating traditional stores on their own turf. Nevertheless, Anderson’s marketing wisdom seems to have been honed and perfected by a completely different constituency – the global terror networks employed by organizations such as the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

A string of disaffection

Any society will have its ugly truths; its tales of injustice, discrimination and deprivation. There will be conversations around disaffection, about loss and alienation from the so-called mainstream. These are narratives that proliferate in every country, society, community and even family. No unit will ever be free of them. But even a casual skimming of social media and the Internet will reveal how certain organizations have become adept at using the new power of outreach afforded by the new media as an effective marketing tool to tap into these hundreds of diverse individual disaggregated disaffections. Take the case of the 32 year old Hyderabad techie Mohiuddin, or of Atif Mohammad Waseem who died while working for the IS in Syria. The new modes of outreach have provided such outfits is the ability to customize their messages uniquely, tailoring them for what they know can make up a diverse and strategically distributed customer base.

There is an obvious advantage to connecting the stranded dots dispersed across the target areas because disaffection gives access to a very long tail indeed – one that stretches across continents and nations extending into our neigbourhoods and even into our own families.  Little wonder then that the  same technologies that enabled the Flipkarts and the Amazons have become the preferred tools to connect and herd together the willing amongst the millions of marginalized and disaffected, integrating people who for religious, economic or social reasons either are or perceive themselves as outsiders. They give them a sense of belonging, of power, and control where they had none.

This is the long tail that we have seen shake in West Asia and feel its tremors in Europe.

In effect, while the coalition forces had been declaring that what they believed was a battle about winning hearts and minds, the real battle for mind space has been taking place under everyone’s noses where organizations like the IS amongst others have understood the power of the long tail. Eagerly they have been tapping into it, reaching out to potential constituents, fanning and nurturing every little sense of deprivation and alienation, waiting patiently to present themselves as the alternative for potential recruits to whom vengeance finally becomes the sole retribution possible.

Confronting these threats are traditional state apparatuses wielding the power of the state, which in turn tries to counter these tactics through a mix of coercion and paternalistic welfare-ism. The state attempts to embrace all citizens —  keeping them within the confines of established law, norms and order — by laying down the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. It tolerates some forms of dissent, allows redressal in certain cases, and uses its powers of coercion, cracking the whip on certain others. Radical outfits strategize to ensure that the state apparatus is increasingly provoked into the latter.

The analogy with brick and mortar stores is relevant here, for the costs to the modern state of both its welfare-ism and even more its coercion are high indeed and can be made to mount every day. It mount too struggles with inefficient and outmoded supply chains and delivery networks.

Completely paranoid

The competition’s task is relatively easy. For it thrives by forcing states, societies and its leaders into a negative spiral of ever increasing distrust that gnaws away at the entrails from within, forces it to rely more and more upon coercion, haemorrhaging it from a hundred little wounds, breathing down its neck, making it increasingly suspicious, stomping out even the faintest hint of dissent.  The final goal being to ensure that the state apparatuses become so paranoid that they are scared of their own shadows.

The methodology is effective.  The process successfully adds ever mounting costs to the running of these apparatuses, provoking through deliberate and planned actions the creation of an ever expanding surveillance state – the savage state that eventually ends up looking little different from the forces it battles.

The mature state understands this – is aware of both the costs and benefits of maintaining the ever delicate balance. It also understands that many of the minions it commands, out of unflagging careerism alone, will have the propensity to crawl when they are asked to t bend to the directives of their bosses. So all the more need for the state to moderate and modulate, to draw the boundaries of state intervention, rapping a few overzealous knuckles from time to time.

Therefore it becomes all the more important where each state or society chooses to draw the boundaries.  There is an obvious paradox here that every mature state must confront – the paradox is that the tighter these boundaries are drawn, the larger and more fertile becomes the field of play for the dark side. Draw them too close and you end up alienating more and more of the populace. Agencies struggling with counter-radicalisation and de-redicalisation understand this too well.

Admitted that the social and economic spaces, the political freedoms we cherish, are hostage to new kinds of threats. In the face of these threats it is all the more important to recognise a that our rather clumsy and unwieldy state apparatuses, our security establishments, are engaged, like brick and mortar stores in the face of e-tailing, in battling a very different kind of challenger. So while the threats are mounting and the lives and values we cherish are facing serious disruption, the greater the need to understand that the turf on which this game is being played is changing.

It is no accident that the event in Pampore followed the ill-advised handling of dissent seen on some of our campuses. We saw the lives of three of the finest members of our special forces snuffed out in the midst of public chanting of anti-India slogans and songs paying tributes not to the army – but to the terrorists.

Just as spectacle is integral to the world of marketing, terror events are also carefully managed and calibrated stage shows, they are blaring full page advertisements commissioned by the e-tailers of disaffection.

We have a government that is well versed in the value of spectacle (some critics even accuse it of preferring spectacle to substance). Therefore, the need to fathom the spectacle it advertently or inadvertently finds itself engaged in. What we do know is that the game has just begun.

Seen as spectacle, Act I was played out on the JNU campus. Act II happened in Pampore.

As far as Act III is concerned this is not the place to go into the legal merits of the cases against Umer Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. However, the important thing is that in spite of all the lynch mobs on prime time as well others in black coats at Patiala House, both chose to submit themselves to the power of the Indian state. That was an explicit demonstration of trust in the authority of the Indian state, a faith in the state and its institutions that by that single act shows itself to be far more potent than that held by the black coated mobs outside Patiala House. The expression of that faith  now makes the Indian state once again the chief protagonist of Act III. So the spectacle this time is going to be about how the Indian state – it’s various arms – disport themselves. Their responses are going to be on display while rabble rousers dressed up as cheerleaders line both sides of the aisle.

There are some signs that the lesson may have been learnt. For one, unlike the lawyers who publicly thrashed Kanhaiya Kumar while he was under the protection of the State, Adarsh Kumar of the bounty fame was actually arrested and remanded to police custody.  

So there is yet reason to feel optimistic that the balance will be restored. The optimism is necessary if only because hidden in the responses being advocated by our home grown variety of kirana nationalists scope lies for incredibly fatal errors – almost as if there is a conspiracy to gift the other side an easy victory indeed.

Sunjoy Joshi is Director,  Observer Research Foundation

Featured image credit: gritphilm, CC by 2.0,  Flickr

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    The point about power laws are that the encourage market segmentation. ISIS’s recruitment strategy made it easier, not more difficult, for Europe to target militants within their own populations. In the UK, for example, we now have a number- about 4000- and a clear understanding that these are the dregs of the Council Estates whom nobody will miss- so tackling the problem no longer has a diplomatic or political cost. What is happening now is the sort of targeted (‘profile’ based) surveillance which was so successful in cracking the problem of football hooliganism. Power laws explain why a small number of people cause the vast majority of problems and ISIS was foolish enough to let us find out what sort of worthless idiots are susceptible. Of course, the same point can be made for antagonomic ‘Liberals’ for ever shedding tears for sociopaths. Both of these types of nuisance can be targeted and silenced because Society understands the basis of the segmentation and understands that the vast majority of people will be unaffected.
    There is no great problem posed by JNU or Jadavpur or any other campus. The State- or rather the Judiciary- are signalling a change in the Schelling focal point which is the solution of the Co-ordination and Dis-coordination games relevant to Careerist gobshites and they are certainly meretricious enough to take the hint.