Nov 6, 2014 · 2 minutes

I don't say these four words often, but here we go:

Malcolm Gladwell was right.

Or at least that's what a new study strongly suggests, supporting one of the more controversial theses put forth by the anecdote-obsessed armchair sociologist: That revolutions occur because of real world friendships and associations, not social media.

Today, the Guardian reports on an upcoming study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Science (ICSR) which finds that British Muslims who join Islamic State fighters in Syria do so more often because of peer pressure than social media propaganda.

“While online recruitment plays a role, people go because they know people who are in Syria," ICSR director Peter Neumann told the Guardian. "It’s all about networks in the real world."

Islamic State's propaganda machine has done an extraordinary job manipulating press reports surrounding its supposed military prowess. Our Gary Brecher (aka the War Nerd) has reported extensively on these exaggerations, calling IS "the most overhyped military force on the planet." But while IS may be capable of toying with the Western media (and thus Western politics -- IS scare stories were legion in the stump speeches of Obama's Republican critics during the midterm elections), its recruiting engine would appear to rely more heavily on strong ties within real world Muslim communities.

If Islamic State's power to recruit via social media is as overstated as the report suggests, then that's certainly good news -- after all, the US State Department's attempts to fight IS on social media have been characterized by ex-officials as largely ineffective. "Feeding the trolls" was how one ex-State worker described it. But if the effect of IS' social media propaganda has been overstated, it also calls into question the logic of devoting so many resources toward fighting it.

We see a similar narrative playing out when it comes to Western jihadists who are detained at airports before departing for farflung lands like Syria -- the more we try to fight it, the worst it gets. After two terrorist attacks in Canada from wannabe jihadists, Brecher wrote,

So what was the downside of letting them go? The most likely outcome was that both would have been cannon fodder, dead in their first month. The Middle East, the non-tourist version, is a big shock to most Westerners, and amateur soldiers who don’t speak Arabic and are used to flush toilets will spend their first months just dealing with the gastro-intestinal adjustments. During that time, these pampered amateurs make big fat targets. And that’s all Martin and Michael wanted, “Istishad,” martyrdom. Though I doubt they knew the proper term; like many new jihadis, they were much more excited about the killing and dying than actually learning the religion. They would have found their deaths fast, vaporized in an air strike or hit by shrapnel. The death rates for foreign jihadis in Syria are horrific, and only the practically unlimited pool of replacements keeps foreign-dominated militias in operation.
No one's questioning the brutality of IS. Its campaign of rape and murder is horrifying. But, as we've seen with the group's overblown military prowess time and time again, the impact of its social media savvy may be equally exaggerated. Militants are joining up for the same reason they always have: Friends and family. In any case, we can take some solace from the fact that those Instagram photos of cats next to assault rifles aren't as potent as IS thinks.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]