Influence, Infamy, and the Case of Osama bin Laden
Our marketing team made a disturbing discovery while creating artwork to accompany an article about influential people as identified by our machine learning algorithm. For the most part, our influence rankings generated a fantastic gallery of luminaries-the usual suspects from Stephen Hawking to Paul Krugman, from Margaret Atwood to Oprah Winfrey. But there was one ominous figure who stood apart from the rest - Osama bin Laden.
With that in mind, a quick word on our methodology…
Our influencer rankings combine machine learning with human quality control to measure and rank the real-world influence of actual people. Our quality control methods aim to identify and correct for shortcomings in our training data and algorithms, such as the implications of real-world bias (because data sourced in the real world reflects the world’s biases in race, gender, demographics, and geography). We also create exceptions to filter out irrelevant and inaccurate search results as they reveal themselves. This method is largely effective at distinguishing academics, experts, and innovators from celebrities, politicians, and social media jockeys. Indeed, we strive to identify influence rather than mere fame.
Again, the exercise in question was to yield a photo collage composed of top influencers (as opposed to yielding the scientifically-objective rankings we produce for your edification). This meant that, strictly for the purposes of this image, we had the luxury of toying with the conditions defining influence. We had the freedom to add exceptions and spin the algorithm to our purposes, as long as our machine learning process remained unbiased and our influence engine produced rankings based on a meaningful and measurable definition of influence.
Yet, no matter how we spun the dial, no matter what exceptions we created, no matter what conditions we set, Osama bin Laden remained a locked-in, bonafide, global influencer.
Sooooo, that’s not good. Right?
Well, no. It’s not good. But then, is influence objectively good?
That’s the question I’d like to explore today. Indeed, it’s a question we have been forced to ask and address as we advance the larger mission of measuring and ranking influence. Before we can really learn any more about influence, we have to acknowledge the homicidal elephant in the room….
Isn’t Influence a Good Thing?
Instinctively, we tend to think of influence as a good thing. We admire influencers. The great achievements in world history are the province of influencers. Our List of the Most Influential People in the World is a Who’s Who of brilliant achievers with towering legacies. There is little controversy in acknowledging the influence of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Virginia Woolf.
So there is something cognitively disquieting about the fact that Osama bin Laden is the #175th most influential person in world history1. If that bothers you, I caution against filtering your results by time-frame. In a ranking of the most influential people of the last thirty years, bin Laden comes in 7th, just between Salman Rushdie and Mark Zuckerberg (figures who are not without their own surrounding controversy).
Osama bin Laden is not the only objectively unethical figure who casts an influential pall. American financier, socialite and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein comes in at #128 on the same list (#1259 overall). Ted Kaczynski, former Harvard mathematics professor and, far more famously, the domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber, ranks #5817 overall. Granted, this is not an amazing slot in the pecking order, but it’s also not nothing.
British occultist Aleister Crowley is #249; LSD prophet Timothy Leary sits at #964; and communist philosopher Karl Marx towers over history at #5. Then there’s Edward Snowden, international fugitive couch surfer and famous leaker of American intelligence secrets: he’s #85 on our list.
Certainly, these fascinating figures are not in the same category of notoriety as bin Laden, Epstein or the Unabomber. They are, however, figures who foment controversy. And for a significant number of people, these figures generate negative feelings. In other words, opinions are mixed on the value of their influence.
And yet, in all cases, the value of their influence is secondary to the permeation of that influence…which brings us back to Osama bin Laden.
Terror as a Form of Influence
I suspect that if you were pressed to name a famous terrorist, bin Laden’s name would be quick to enter your mind. And though regrettable, no one can credibly deny that international terrorism has had a profound and transformative impact on our world, from the domestic agencies and international alliances formed around combatting it, to the local militias and armed conflicts tearing whole nations apart because of it.
Osama bin Laden’s influence looms large on all of these fronts. Let’s take a closer look using an instrument other than our own influence rankings. Google’s Ngram viewer scans the content of 30 million print books drawn from libraries located around the world. You can search this content and easily grasp how usage of certain words and phrases ebbs and flows over time.
For instance, when you search the word “terrorism” in the Ngram viewer, you’ll see that use of the word was virtually nonexistent in the 19th Century and scarce in the first half of the 20th Century.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a gradual rise in its usage, which peaked in 1987 before dipping slightly. 1993 saw the beginning of another burst in usage, seemingly in tandem with the first World Trade Center bombing. Then, between 1996 and 2004, printed use of the phrase skyrocketed. 1996 was the year that Osama bin Laden established his domain in Afghanistan, declared war on the United States, and initiated a series of embassy bombings that would culiminate with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
If you search Osama bin Laden’s name on Google’s Ngram Viewer, you’ll note that its usage peaks with the same intensity during this very same period of time.
We revisit this momentous and painful period in our immediate history only to observe that bin Laden’s influence over the era was considerable. And to the extent that the effects of decisions made during that time still ripple outward into the lives of millions today, his continuing influence is observable in objective and incontrovertible ways—from the fractious daily realities of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to the fractured state of US political culture today.
Being a Bad Influence
Influence is complex, entangled and sometimes indirect. Perhaps most importantly, influence is amoral. History’s most notorious villains have had a profound influence on the shape of the world today—the cancerous ripples left behind by Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, and Adolf Hitler are tangible, and continue to shape our world.
Leadership, expertise, and brilliance lend themselves to profound influence. Tyranny, infamy, and sociopathy can do this as well. And where these two personality types overlap, things get even hazier.
This poses the challenge at the heart of our ranking ecosystem. Our vision and our goal is not merely to rank according to influence, but to gain a better, fuller, and more nuanced understanding of the nature of influence—what it is, how it works, and why it matters.
In one regard, this project of ranking by influence matters because the people who we consider to be positive influencers are examples of success we can celebrate, admire, and after whom we can model our own ambitions and behaviors. But the case of bin Laden reveals that raw influence also matters because it is a powerful force, one that can be channeled to accomplish monstrous ends.
Putting aside the extreme case of bin Laden, influence can, at the very least, be channeled to do things with which you strenuously disagree, to cultivate support from people whose ideologies are at odds with your own, even to carry out actions that you find morally repugnant.
Spheres of Influence
Without being glib, that condition essentially describes the state of politics in the US today. Americans are sharply divided across racial, political, and ideological lines, while leadership on all sides jockey for a dominant sphere of influence.
In fact, the phrase “sphere of influence” is worth reflecting on for just a moment. This phrase traces its origins to the Cold War, when opposing philosophies of governance, economic distribution, and social order competed for world dominance. Soviet-style Communism and American Western Democracy battled in theatres across the globe—through both military confrontation and economic occupation—to prove their diametrically opposed ways of life superior.
The territories over which each of the global superpowers claimed alliance or sovereignty were called “spheres of influence,” places in which one ideology (and its attendant military or economic appendages) had vanquished the other. Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, under the Russian sphere of influence, were modeled directly after the authoritarian communism seated in Moscow. The Western sphere of influence informed the emergence of free market economies and electoral democracies in France, Italy, and West Germany.
But the Cold War was also waged across bloody and contested fronts like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and an endless gallery of theatres in the Middle East, on the African Continent, in the jungles of South America, and at the far reaches of the South Pacific. Russia and the US waged fifty years of brutal hostility in the interests of extending their respective spheres.
So compelling, so consequential, so imbued with implications for future generations was this idea of influence that untold millions died for it. And true to the promise of these superpowers, that influence continues to play out in the present day. So many of these theatres show the deep scars—sometimes still-open wounds—from their Cold War battles. (Let it not be lost on us that there is a direct and literal connection between the aforementioned Afghani theatre and the emergence of Osama bin Laden as a figure of historical influence.)
On that grim note, we return to the subject of current American electoral politics. Our sharp cultural and political divisions need no cataloguing here. They are omnipresent in American life. And like the Cold War’s spheres of influence, these divisions represent diametrically opposed views of what is right, what is best, and what type of influence should be wielded by our leaders. We, the people, are divided into spheres of influence, and from within these spheres, our conceptions of both influence and infamy stand in sharp opposition to one another.
Whether you view Donald Trump as infamous or influential, and whether you view Barack Obama as infamous or influential, may depend on the sphere where you’ve taken up residence.
The Cruel Objectivity of Influence
We’ve set out to measure influence objectively, particularly so we can shine a light on excellence and celebrate the best in people. So you can see the bind we’re in here: How can we reconcile the impact that personal worldviews, values, and morals have on influence? And how do we reconcile the fact that some figures who are unethical, immoral, or objectively evil are also figures of influence--from bin Laden to Hitler (#1341) to Genghis Khan (#508)?
Well, we can’t.
As soon as we decide that Osama bin Laden is undeserving of his status as an influencer, we’re making the moral argument that ethical behavior is a necessary condition for influence. Consequently, if we do so, we place ourselves in the position of assessing and arbiting what qualifies as ethical and what does not. While bin Laden is an easy call, things get a lot thornier when it comes to assessing the ethics of Karl Marx, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Edward Snowden. Who gets to decide whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor?
Without discrediting the brilliant data scientists and seasoned academics on our team, dictating moral turpitude is above our collective pay-grade. As soon as we decide that bin Laden’s influence must be stricken from the record, we must also pick sides in the Cold War, endorse one US presidential candidate over another, take a firm stance on the Communist Manifesto, and decide whether Facebook does more damage than good.
The Moral Neutrality of Influence
Clearly, we can’t do that, and it isn’t because we don’t have opinions. It’s because our opinions have little or nothing to do with actual influence.
The numbers don’t lie. We have our own factory-floor ranking tool called Ranking Analytics. Whereas our Academic Influence rankings are focused on the impact of academic influence, our Ranking Analytics tool allows us to view influence in virtually any topic area. If we use these analytics to look up a controversial and discomfiting topic like “euthanasia,” two noteworthy names rise to the top: ranked third overall is Adolf Hitler, and fourth, Jack Kevorkian.
Hitler’s presence in that list is owed to the Nazi regime’s “euthanasia” program which was, in actuality, a campaign of genocide against the physically and mentally disabled. Like bin Laden, Hitler generates no controversy: his influence on the subject of euthanasia is at once considerable and objectively evil.
However, Jack Kevorkian is a fascinating figure worthy of brief discussion here. Known in the media at the time of his greatest notoriety during the 1990s as Dr. Death, he faced criminal charges and infamy for overseeing an estimated 130 assisted suicides for terminally ill or chronically suffering patients. Though assisted suicide was illegal in the state of Michigan where he practiced medicine, Kevorkian argued in court that his actions were done in the name of mercy, and that all people have the right to choose death. It ignited sharp philosophical disagreement over a complex topic.
Some viewed him as a murderer, others as an agent of mercy. The media surrounding his case shone a bright spotlight on the complex issue of euthanasia, and awoke a great dawning of awareness about the competing views on this subject. In other words, it is beyond dispute that Dr. Kevorkian was an influential figure as it concerns the topic of euthanasia. Very much up for dispute are the ethical implications of his influence and deeds.
Again, while bin Laden and Hitler may be open-and-shut cases, the case of Dr. Kevorkian is far less so. But we can say with certainty that removing Kevorkian from the discussion of euthanasia on ethical grounds would produce a partial and misleading look at the subject area.
Leaning into the Controversy of Influence
Dr. Kevorkian’s case is a good starting point as we determine, going forward, how best to handle the potential controversy over influence which is fueled by fame and infamy, rather than excellence. We don’t believe it’s possible to explore influence in any area—academic or otherwise—without first acknowledging that some influences are diametrically opposed to others; that competing spheres of influence may be revealed in a subject area; that the #2 influencer on one of our lists might consider the #1 influencer on the same list to be a pompous windbag—or even a monster.
That’s why we intend to do so much more than rank people and schools by influence. In order to better understand the meaning and impact of this influence, we’ll use our rankings as a doorway into discourse.
Over time, we plan to take on the most controversial topics of our time—immigration reform, reproductive rights, race relations, and much more—through the lens of influence. We can’t reconcile the ideological and practical disagreements that frame these issues, but we can explore the diverging and complementary influences that compete and collaborate around these issues.
Stick with us as we unravel the concept of influence by diving more deeply into the work of competing influencers in areas like online privacy, cancel culture, global climate change, capital punishment, police violence, censorship, universal healthcare, and countless other pressing topics. By setting these influencers into conversation with one another—both through our own rhetorical exploration, and through interviews with the actual influencers themselves—we’ll gain a greater appreciation for the critical necessity of objectivity in understanding influence. It provides the basis for a far deeper and more thorough understanding of each topic and the multivariate forces that define them.
It also provides you, as the user, with some reassurances. Our rankings are without bias. Whether you’re using our algorithm to conduct research, to inform your reading list, to discover new mentors, heroes, or villains, or simply to find a college that meets your personal needs, the findings are data-driven.
The Notorious OBL
Keep all of this in mind when you come across bin Laden’s image on our website. We ended up using it. We kept bin Laden for the same reason that we allow so many ugly truths to be represented in our data.
It would be easy to rid our site of undesirables, and just as easy to explain the qualifications we’ve used to eliminate those who are guilty of objectively awful behavior. But influence simply doesn’t work that way.
As we are coming to understand with increasing clarity, influence is complex. In some cases, the value of this influence is truly in the eye of the beholder. And as our understanding of influence continues to evolve, we will use this platform to explore, explain and experiment with the concept more fully. It begins here by acknowledging that measuring influence demands unflinching objectivity…even if this requires us to look directly into the face of evil.
1All ranking current as of this publication.