EEG distinguishes heroic narratives in ISIS online video propaganda
Keith J. Yoder, Keven Ruby, Robert Pape, Jean Decety | 2020
The Islamic State (ISIS) was uniquely effective among extremist groups in the Middle East at recruiting Westerners. A major way ISIS accomplished this was by adopting Hollywood-style narrative structures for their propaganda videos. In particular, ISIS utilized a heroic martyr narrative, which focuses on an individual’s personal glory and empowerment, in addition to traditional social martyr narratives, which emphasize duty to kindred and religion. The current work presented adult participants (n = 238) video clips from ISIS propaganda which utilized either heroic or social martyr narratives and collected behavioral measures of appeal, narrative transportation, and psychological dispositions (egoism and empathy) associated with attraction to terrorism. Narrative transportation and the interaction between egoism and empathy predicted video recruitment appeal. A subset of adults (n = 80) underwent electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements while watching a subset of the video-clips. Complementary univariate and multivariate techniques characterized spectral power density differences when perceiving the different types of narratives. Heroic videos show increased beta power over frontal sites, and globally increased alpha. In contrast, social narratives showed greater frontal theta, an index of negative feedback and emotion regulation. The results provide strong evidence that ISIS heroic narratives are specifically processed, and appeal to psychological predispositions distinctly from other recruitment narratives.