Type: Seminar

What Makes a Jihadist Text Popular?


Richard Nielsen, MIT

Date & time

Oct 8, 2018, 11:30 am-1:00 pm EDT

Jihadist terrorism is a pressing issue for policy–makers and social scientists. Using data from 50 million page views on a jihadist website, we investigate what makes some jihadist writings more popular than others, and whether killing and capturing jihadist thinkers is an effective policy tool for reducing the popularity of their ideas. We find that the identity of the author is the strongest predictor of baseline popularity among jihadist readers. When authors are killed, the popularity of their documents temporarily increases, but we find no long–term effect. Fears that counterterrorism efforts will inadvertently repopularize jihadists' ideas are overblown, but counterterrorism efforts do not appear to make jihadists' ideas less popular either.

Richard Nielsen is an Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT. He completed his PhD (Government) and AM (Statistics) at Harvard University, and holds a BA from Brigham Young University. His forthcoming book, Deadly Clerics (Cambridge University Press), uses statistical text analysis and fieldwork in Cairo mosques to understand the radicalization of jihadi clerics in the Arab world. Nielsen also writes on international law, the political economy of human rights, political violence, and political methodology. Some of this work is published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, Political Analysis, and Sociological Methods and Research. In 2017-2019 he is an Andrew Carnegie fellow, and his work has previously been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.