By Conor Gleeson
Stochastic terrorism is a term that rose to prominence in 2018 to describe the use of mass, public communication, against a particular individual or group, which incites or inspires acts of terrorism which are statistically probable but happen seemingly at random. Used to describe acts that are not specific or virulent enough to be hate speech, but vague enough to allow speakers plausible deniability in a court of law, stochastic terror allows demagogues and media organizations to communicate intentions to supporters on public media platforms. The speaker directs hate and animus against specific organizations and individuals instead of directly participating, even though their involvement and role in motivating violent individuals may be well known in relevant communities. While the term was invented by “G2Geek” on the DailyKos website to describe American incidents of politically motivated violence, it can be used to examine the Polish government’s retribution against opposition forces in both civilian and government work.
In December of 2003, a United Nations international court found news media executives such as Georges Riggiu guilty of genocide for inciting killing sprees in Rwanda using a radio station and a twice-monthly newspaper to inflame ethnic hatred that eventually led to massacres across Rwanda. The radio station, dubbed “Radio Machete”, guided killers to specific victims, broadcasting the names, license plate numbers and hiding places of Tutsis.In its summary the court stated: “The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility. Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.” While not genocide, individuals who use stochastic terrorism rely on mass media control or the understanding their words will be communicated indirectly through news organizations that report on public pronouncements, especially controversial ones that may advocate violence. While non-friendly media will present veiled comments for violence to highlight the abnormality and danger of such statements, they are still spreading the message to their viewers and even may solidify confirmation bias among citizens already predisposed to believe or act on inciting words.
In Poland, government-controlled TV station Polish TV (PTV) broadcast the names, jobs, and private information of protestors who were in front of their building the previous day (February 2019). While they did not explicitly call for violence, the inclusion of such information in their regular broadcast was an illegal and unethical attempt at retribution that sought to intimidate those speaking out against the Law and Justice party as well as their media organs. Previous attempts by the Law and Justice party to ban reporters critical of their policies from covering Parliamentary events and fine stations that covered protests because they “promoted illegal activities” and “encouraged behavior that threatened security” show a pattern of behavior designed to discourage critics officially. Now news organizations affiliated with Law and Justice have moved to unofficial discouragement, creating a culture of permissiveness of unauthorized violence in favor of the Party, by publishing such private information for unscrupulous individuals to use on their own initiative. PTV already has blood on its hands, as the public assassination of popular Gdańsk mayor Pawel Adamwicz can attest. The perpetrator cited the mayor’s political affiliation as justification, claiming the mayor’s party Civic Platform (CP) had jailed him unjustly. That evening, PTV aired footage of CP politicians criticizing Law and Justice in harsh language while omitting Law and Justice’s own. The implications were quite clear, as Mr. Adamwicz’s widow can attest.
Similar stochastic incitement occurred on March 5th, as Twitter accounts and pro-government media such as “wpolityce” began leaking the personal files of Polish judges involved in Isutitia, an independent and apolitical community of judges committed to maintaining civil rights and the judicial institutions of Poland. While developments are ongoing, Human Resource government files, case outcomes, and information on the judges private lives have all been leaked as a means of intimidation and to discourage ruling against Law and Justice, an internet practice known as “doxing”. Once again, the release of personal details including locations allow for sufficiently motivated individuals to track down and potentially hurt these judges. In a private forum, Law and Justice judge Jaskulski stated in October of 2018 that if “Iustitia cannot be taken over from the inside, it has to be dealt with outside.” Along that line, some government-friendly Twitter accounts and news platforms are demanding that the Polish government take control of Iustitia due to a supposed “lack of transparency” concerning the members of the association, their names and finances.
The actions of the Law and Justice government and its media organs in disseminating private information and locations of its opposition promote a culture of political violence that indirectly enables those who wish to harm enemies of the government. Criminologist Mark S. Hamm and sociologist Ramón Spaaij discuss stochastic terrorism in Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism as the primary method used by ISIS and conspiracy theorists to strike at targets or individuals they themselves do not have the capability of harming. The Law and Justice party has shown a marked tendency to use conspiracy theories and paranoia as a mobilizing agent in political life, stemming from the 2010 plane crash that killed many high-ranking members of the Polish government, including the Law and Justice leader’s brother. The suddenness of the tragedy along with its content spawned numerous conspiracies to justify or explain the accident rather than accept that the deaths were caused by human error, an inexperienced pilot under pressure trying to land at speed in heavy fog. Law and Justice’s propagation of conspiracies allowed the group to point to an unspecified “Them” such as the political elites as the cause of the country’s woes, as “They” had previously acted to keep Law and Justice out of power or limited through judicial measures. Those vulnerable to stochastic rhetoric frequently mix their personal grievances with political grievances so that when their party is “wronged” they feel as if it is also a personal injustice. (US DoJ report) Haam and Spaaij admit that randomly timed acts of stochastic terrorism are “indirectly enabled by conspiracy theories circulated in mass media by high status political or religious leaders” as justification for violence. Furthermore, the idea that violent attacks could come from anywhere at any time, from persons unknown serves to keep both the opposition and public in a state of generalized fear that Law and Justice can in turn capitalize on to remain in power.
While the actions of Law and Justice as well as their media outlets do not target vast swathes of people as the Rwandan media executives did, their actions nonetheless place targets on the backs of ordinary citizens and judges alike who are singled out for scripted violence that may happen at any time without official input from Law and Justice. In summation, the actions of the Polish government in the Law and Justice Party is inciting violence, eliminating dissent through intimidation, and promoting a culture of violence by releasing personal information to the public.
Very interesting topic, definitely a conversation that we need to start having as a society. I have to say, while I am of course disgusted by them, I cannot color myself surprised by the action of the PiS (Law and Justice Party) and their base given their rise to power in 2001 was primarily backed by right-winged Catholic fundamentalists that encouraged this type of behavior. It is gut wrenching to see a global trend of this type of “Stochastic Terrorism” continue to rise, especially in countries such as Poland where the fight FOR Democracy was so long and hard fought. (Monkey Cage- Kamil Marcinkiewicz, Mary Stegmaier)
These acts happening in Poland right now are of course eerily similar to rhetoric being pushed in our own country by President Donald Trump and the right wing media. Whether it be his brash and abrasive style, his self-centered and unfettered communicative approach or his willingness to lie while accusing others of peddling “fake news,” Donald Trump certainly has been an American mirror image to much of the same language that has been used by the Polish far-right. The FBI reports that hate crimes have risen 17% in the past three years, as we have witnessed our country provide a wide push towards the demonization of ethnic, racial, and minority groups. And of course just recently, President Trump stating “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” (New York Times) has done nothing to slow this growth.
Due to the nature “Lone Wolf” terrorism, many people are under the false pretense that these acts stem from nothing but the “lone” thoughts and actions of one person. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Much like the incitement of action from Polish news networks that you mentioned in your article, we have seen time and time again that these terrorists are being fed inflammatory information that lead them to commit acts of violence. One of the most shocking examples of this is the New Zealand Mosque shootings, in which: “The self-avowed white supremacist who carried out last week’s shooting in Christchurch left a hate-filled, 74-page manifesto that referred to Trump as a symbol of “renewed white identity and common purpose.” (New York Post)
Marcinkiewicz, Kamil and Mary Stegmaier. “Poland appears to be dismantling its own hard-won democracy.” The Washington Post. July 21, 2017.
Why do you think a regime might prefer stochastic terrorism to more direct methods? It seems useful for the stealth authoritarian insofar as it provides deniability, but it strikes me as imprecise and very risky in the long term. The stochastic terrorist can’t be sure that their supporters will succeed, or that they will necessarily target the opponents that pose the greatest risk to the regime. There is also the chance that they might turn to unauthorized violence if the state does not make a further effort to coopt them into the security apparatus. On the other hand, more direct methods like arrests or police harassment are bad for the stealth authoritarian’s image abroad, and are easier for opponents at home to mobilize against.
(Additionally: I realize this is far-right-watcher inside baseball to a certain extent, but do you see a distinction between stochastic terrorism and Beam’s leaderless resistance?)