Why is monitoring presented as the solution to the terror threat?

Tori Aarseth
Freelance journalist. Often writes for Ny Tid.

The surveillance we see today, is not necessarily a natural or necessary response to the threat of terrorism, if we are to believe Cristina Archetti, professor at University of Oslo’s Institute of Media and Communication. Modern Times meets her during the institute’s annual surveillance conference held at the Fritt Ord Foundation. According to Archetti, the idea of monitoring as counter-terrorism only makes sense within a constructed reality, which is, in many ways, arbitrary. A Foucauldian truth regime makes up the framework of what can be said about surveillance, of what is true and false. “The language is very important, it plays a key part,” she states. “Little by little this becomes tangible. Increasingly real. The words become law, and then reality.” What happens when the premises we build our language about terror and surveillance upon, are false?

“Frightening.” Archetti believes the way we approach radicalisation as a phenomenon, is characterised by a frightening ignorance. “Suddenly, radicalisation becomes an ideology transmission, or information, problem. We see this through the measures many countries have taken to combat radicalisation,” says Archetti. One such example is the US Global Engagement Centre (GEC), which works to spread a message supposed to spur foreigners into actively taking a stand against terrorism. The idea is that the GEC counters the jihadists’ discourse of a war between Islam and the West with a narrative about democracy and human rights. “The solution to the terror threat is here seen as sending out a message. This is a problem, because it is based on completely outdated communication theories, » says Archetti. She points to the so-called hypodermic needle model, which means that when someone receives a message, this message is absorbed without questions. In reality, we select the information we want to see, and interpret what we receive. “I could show you jihadist videos all day long, but I am certain they would not turn any of us into terrorists,” states Archetti.

Radicalisation is not a mystery, we know why people become radicalised.


The fact that the internet is viewed as a dark place with an almost mystic power is another important element in the constructed reality which informs the decision makers’ response to terrorism. The internet is where young people are exposed to everything from recruitment into the jihadist ranks, to paedophiles searching for a new victim. To Archetti, the idea that there exists an online world separate from the real world, is crazy. “Whoever believes that does not live in this century,” she comments. “The internet is merely a tool, but the focus on technology means that there is now a notion that something exists called ‘onlineradicalisation’ and that this actually happens on the internet.”

Vanishing politics. The demonising of the internet, the way Archetti sees it, removes the focus from other more important issues. When radicalisation is viewed as the result of having been tainted by a ‘poisonous ideology’ online, surveillance becomes the natural antidote. The political and the social are censored out. «This is important, because if you believe that young people react without thinking, as if robots activated by a message, you also remove their ability to make their own decisions,” says Archetti. “If they are unable to act consciously, you also remove whatever political and social motives they might have. Thus, it becomes a purely technological solution all about directing information.”

Archetti believes some of the reason why authorities seem to prefer this technological solution, lies here. Surveillance and counter propaganda messages are visible, and can be counted ,. This way, authorities are seen to be sorting out the problem, all the while avoiding the big and difficult political and social problems that enableradicalisation. “Radicalisation is not a mystery, we know why radicalisation happens, “says Archetti. «Although the internet and social media are handy tools, what is important is the creation of relationships and a feeling of belonging to a group.” To steer the efforts back onto the right track, we need to use the correct language. However, Archetti notices that the dominant language tends tobe misleading. Sometimes, research funding is advertised using terms that imply that ‘online radicalisation’is the problem. “Should I not apply because I disagree with the premise?” asks Archetti. “What if I have to apply because I need research funding? I am then forced by the system to buy into the false idea the call for funding is based on.”


Offset in time. Monitoring as a strategy to combat terrorism is not only based on assumptions on how someone becomes a terrorist. Underneath exists also an expectation that intelligence services should be able to avert all terror. Is this a reasonable expectation? Heidi Mork Lomell, institute leader at the Department of Criminology and Sociology, points out that acts of terror are, by their very nature, unpredictable. Despite this, there are attempts to modify methods, in a bid to locate the terrorist prior to committing a terror act. “The criminalising in this area has pushed the offence increasingly earlier in time. Now, preparing for terror is a criminal act, and actions happening well before a potential attempt. We are here talking about surveillance and investigation at a very early stage,” explains Lomell. She continues: “A suspicion that comes before anything illegal has occurred, is often a categorical distrust. It can relate to skin colour or appearance; certain people are singled out.”

At the base lies a categorisation of the world as binary oppositions. A well-known refrain is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. You are either a terrorist, or innocent. The problem occurs when someone is caught before they have committed an offence. Systems make mistakes, and not all intentions are carried out. This dual world view may be the reason why the majority do not feel threatened by the surveillance. It is created to produce distance, and the thought of one day perhaps being put into the other category involuntarily is too remote. “Perhaps we need less technology and more humanity. We require humanity to comprehend why people become radicalised and what their problems are”, Archetti concludes.