The rise of social media platforms and the development of information and communication technology (ICT) reshaped the manner through which knowledge is transferred and redefined the channels through which information is mediated. As of January 2021, 4.66 billion people were believed to be active internet users globally, this staggering number translates to 59.5% of the global population. That is more than half of the world’s entire population, 92.6% of which use their mobile devices to access the internet. That is the equivalent of approximately 4.32 billion people who are often a few taps away from delving into a world of endless information and billions of other users seeking like-minded people.
In fact, The United States of America ranks third when it comes to the number of internet users, after China and India, with more than 313 million users. The fact that social media platforms primarily seek to bring people with common interests and perspectives together can present a significant factor in the rise of digital radicalization. This is a direct consequence of algorithms used by social media platforms that aim at providing users with content that aligns with their worldview and reinforces their bias.
This article attempts to delve into the issue of digital extremism and how it affects the world’s political stability, especially in the case of the United States of America. It further seeks to examine the prospect of radicalization through social media platforms. A special light will also be shed on the increase in informational asymmetries across issues and how they amplify the influence of extremist voters and divert attention away from important but non-controversial policies.
The Use Of Social Media By United States Extremists
Online social media platforms are playing an increasingly important role in the radicalization processes of U.S. extremists. While U.S. extremists were slow to embrace social media, in recent years, the number of individuals relying on these user-to-user platforms for the dissemination of extremist content and the facilitation of extremist relationships has grown exponentially.
In the past several years, social media has become a nearly ubiquitous method for consuming and sharing extremist content and communicating with extremists from around the world. From 2011 to 2016, 216 out of 295 (73.2%) of the extremists in PRIUS used social media platforms to passively consume content, participate in extremist dialogues, spread extremist propaganda, or communicate with other extremists.
Common social media platforms used in the United States, and also utilized most often by extremists:
- Facebook: Nearly two-thirds of extremists (64.53%) used Facebook for radicalization or mobilization between 2005 and 2016.
- YouTube: The second most popular, usage rate of nearly one-third (30.57%).
- Twitter: The third most popular social media platform was Twitter, which was utilized by nearly a quarter (23.4%) of extremists in the data.
- Telegram, Kik, WhatsApp, and other encrypted platforms: over 10% of extremists.
In the 1990s, many groups established static websites. The idea was to make available alternative platforms, circumventing the mainstream media’s censorship, conveying unfiltered news, and disseminating ideological texts and materials. To this day, many groups maintain a variety of such sites, now including personal sites for leaders and prominent ideologues, as well as memorial sites, which tell the stories of prisoners, fallen fighters, and martyrs.
Interestingly enough, recent research reveals that of the 265 extremists who used social media between 2005 and 2016, 243 (91.70%) at least consumed extremist content passively, meaning they watched videos or read texts but may not have actively contributed any content themselves. It’s also worth mentioning the fact that far-right extremists participated in extremist dialogues at a greater rate (67.74%) than far-left (54.55%) and Islamist (55.37%) extremists. Far-right extremists were also substantially more likely to actively create content (30.65%) than far-left (18.18%) and Islamist extremists.
How Online Radicalization Works
In examining the mechanisms of digital and online radicalization, it is important to take into consideration a number of plausible explanations that are interlinked and occasionally interdependent. First, online radicalization can be a direct outcome of emotional desensitization due to continuous immersion in extreme and radical content online. Internet users who encounter graphic images, violent videos, hate speech, and radical discourse acquire a diminished emotional responsiveness to repeated encounters with violence. Such content normalizes what should otherwise be perceived as inhumane. Desensitization to violence through continuous online exposure results in a form of habituation that decreases empathy and prosocial behavior. In fact, desensitization to violence can cultivate a pattern of ‘pathologic adaptation’ to violence, which can eventually increase the risk for subsequent violent behavior in real life.
The absence of healthy emotional distress and cognitive disapproval of violence increases the likelihood of violent behavior occurring in practice as a consequence of observational learning and priming of aggressive behavior. Moreover, according to social psychologist Tom Pyszczynski, constant exposure to discourses about martyrdom and death, combined with videos of suicide operations and terrorist executions, can produce a sense of “mortality salience”. This presents an overpowering sense of one’s own mortality, which increases support for suicide operations and other, often excessively brutal, terrorist tactics.
Second, this normalization of violent behavior often occurs in online communities and social media platforms. Internet users can easily find communities that further support their inclinations towards extremism and violence. Indeed, social media platforms use algorithms that are designed to keep users active and connected. Such algorithms track users’ preferences and, in turn, provide them with content that is in line with their tendencies. This can present extremists with an environment that further supports their radical perceptions and ideologies. People who spend enough time being involved in virtual communities and online forums make the mistake of thinking that such forums function as their actual social environment. With algorithms that operate to enforce this idea, users can find themselves immersed, and encouraged to further participate, in communities that normalize and put forward radical ideologies, violent behavior, and extreme bias.
Third, these communities do not necessarily require authentic identification information to allow internet users to acquire membership. This allows people to enjoy a sense of anonymity as they believe that they can hide their real identities. Psychologist John Suler refers to this phenomenon as “online disinhibition”. It can be described as a sense of dissociative anonymity combined with invisibility and the minimization of authority. This leads to groups becoming more hostile and polarized and can culminate in aggressive behavior offline. It also facilitates communication between people across great distances and with no prior interaction. With the help of the Internet, people find it easier to meet radicals, extremists, and get acquainted with terrorist networks, especially those who have no real-world contacts in the violent extremist milieu. This paves the path for turning any violent aspiration into reality, especially that the Internet offers a pool of potential members that can be tapped into with less risk than would be involved in approaching an individual in the real world.
Interestingly enough, digital radicalization can also be the outcome of meeting people with opposing perspectives. In his essay “A Case Study in Group Polarization”, Professor Cass. R. Sunstein provides an assessment of the theory of group polarization. Simply put, he posits that group deliberations in regards to any given topic result in more division than mutual understanding. This means that when two groups holding different stances deliberate and argue about the topic on which they differ, it is very likely that their deliberation results in the members of both groups acquiring more radical opinions based on what they already believe. With the emergence of the internet and social media, such confrontations between people holding different perspectives became more frequent. This should also be considered as a plausible reason for the rise of digital extremism.
Governments and Online Censorship
There are countries like China, North Korea, Russia, and Turkey that choose to implement censorship measures and impose restrictions on online activities preventing people from accessing certain websites, forums, or locations in cyberspace. Censorship in the cyberworld is a way of killing dissent, maintaining state control, and keeping internet users under surveillance. In reality, however, internet censorship is rarely effective, except in the most repressive countries, which have full control over internet access and devote massive resources to policing its use.
On the contrary, the United States of America is considered to be a global champion of Internet freedom and the free flow of information. For instance, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly spoke out against electronic curtains, firewalls, and other kinds of online censorship in different parts of the world and specifically in countries like Syria, North Korea, China, and Iran. In addition, even though the majority of violent or extremist content is available mostly on privately-owned forums and social media platforms – YouTube or Facebook, for example, the U.S. government did not, and does not, consider shutting down such platforms or blocking users from accessing them a legitimate solution.
In fact, social media platforms started adopting internal regulations and community standards that aim at reducing and marginalizing violent and extremist content. For instance, Facebook started implementing algorithms facilitating fact-checking, identifying misinformation, removing graphic content, restricting the reach of groups that violate community rules, and banning users who spread violent discourse. Nonetheless, such measures have only been recently implemented and it is therefore still early to assess their efficiency. It is also very important to remember that Facebook is but one social media platform in vast cyberspace that hosts numerous other unregulated platforms and communities.
It is equally important to note that content that is deemed extremist and radicalizing can qualify to be protected under the First Amendment. Censorship could be seen as an infringement of free speech. Indeed, for a statement to be illegal, it needs to “[contain] a direct, credible ‘true’ threat against an identifiable individual, organization or institution; [meet] the legal test for harassment; or [constitute] incitement to imminent lawless action likely to occur”. Thereafter, most of the traditional means for reducing the supply of violent extremist content would be entirely ineffective or of very limited use in the U.S. context.
The rise of digital radicalism has had significant implications on the American political arena. For the first time in American history, insurrectionists attacked and occupied the U.S. Capitol in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. This resulted in 5 casualties including a Capitol Hill police officer. The violence that occurred on the U.S. Capitol was a direct consequence of polarizing political rhetoric and serious planning that took place on websites that propagate far-right conspiracy theories and radical agendas.
Websites and social media platforms like Parler, Gab, Donald, and MeWe promoted conspiracy theories and disinformation about the results of the presidential election. In fact, according to Laurel Wamsley of NPR, on the day of the Capitol riots, Gab’s traffic witnessed a 40% increase. In the same vein, more than 80% of the top posts on Donald included calls for violence in regards to the Electoral College certification in the top five responses, according to research from Advance Democracy.
It is also important to note that more than 1,480 posts from QAnon-related accounts, who are adherents of a right-wing group that believes former President Donald Trump was waging a secret war against the deep state, contained calls for violence since January 1st. The same tendency can be noted in regards to TikTok as a significant number of videos promoted violence and generated hundreds of thousands of views.
Online extremism can also result in graver outcomes and heartbreaking tragedies. For example, the shootings in the Chabad of Poway Synagogue as well as the El Paso massacre were linked to the online anonymous message board 8chan. Not only do extremists share their manifestos and hate speech on this platform, but they also use it to celebrate mass shootings and massacres. According to the Washington Post, Fredrick Brennan, who founded 8chan in 2013 but who has stopped working with the site’s owners admitted that “the board is a receptive audience for domestic terrorists”. This presents remarkable proof that digital radicalization can eventually result in open violence.
The Cases Of Donald Trump’s Aggressive Takedown
To explore how social media has affected political matters obliquely throughout the years, we have to first, look at a historical event when America became a place of radicalization and rebellion. Republicans supporters, after the loss of former president Donald Trump, saw great potential within its partisanship and actively infiltrated successions to gain supporters, form unions, and instigate strikes arguing for righteous re-election. Five people have died and more than 140 were injured during the attack. A tweet intercepted by Twitter from the former president exemplifies the type of rhetorical positioning the political agents used to gain support:
These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.
Twitter blocked Trump from tweeting that same day after removing three tweets, including the video telling supporters they are “very special”. And while the motion has mostly go quelled, on several occasions, riots have overwhelmed their rivals by occupied the locale with dangerous weapons and berating criticisms, including the most ubiquitous one yet until this day, the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol, which revealed both the resentment had fomented and the lengths at which Trump’s supporters were willing to go to put an end to them. These activities represented the first instances of how online usage has affected and dysfunctioned our point of view on politics.
During his time in office, Trump has spread out his nativism toward illegal immigrants multiple times, morphed the covid 19 outbreak from serious worrying into minus flu that “will magically go away” and woefully, reinforced his deep-seated belief in racist concepts of white supremacy and xenophobia.
The philosophy on why someone willingly believes in such far-fetched and irrational ideas is enigmas. But it can be presumably hypothesized by psychologists, firstly, due to confirmation bias, when one tends to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values, people tend to seek out information that is most fit to what they have already believed in. For example, people who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. That has happened vividly in America when a portion of citizens still believe in Democrats eating babies for immortality, and the others believe in Russian President Vladimir Putin has compromising information about President Donald Trump.
When conflicts brewed as competing forces with opposing ideologies turned to the internet with different aims. Therefore, admitting that social media occupied a formidable role in the political structures, aims, and resistance that would manifest itself in the nation’s subsequent civil war between the Republican and Democratic parties. While the U.S. government needs to retain its capability for carrying out cyber-attacks, it should do so in specific cases that are absolutely essential to stop a terrorist attack and/ or prevent the loss of life, as in the case of Donald Trump.
Reducing The Demand For Digital Extremist
Just because the Internet is technology does not mean that the remedy for every problem caused by the Internet needs to be technological. Online extremists may spend much of their time in cyberspace and may maintain friendships and relationships with people they have never met in person, but they still have a real-world existence: They interact with their parents, fellow students, workmates, and friends; they go to school, shop, and attend community events.
The most promising approach to a digital extremist individual is to educate them about the matter, to systematically expose them to anti-extremist ideas, make them question their assumptions, and prompt those around them (family, friends, and colleagues) to engage in discussions and debates. This approach may not have changed all of their beliefs, but it might have sowed enough doubt to make them reconsider engaging in violence.
This could involve, for example:
- Bringing together community groups with public relations, advertising, and media production companies, who can help craft better, more powerful messages and turn them into attractive media products.
- Setting up prizes and competitions for online projects that promote civic participation and alternatives to violence.
- Encouraging foundations, philanthropists, and private businesses to launch a grassroots start-up fund for initiatives seeking to counter extremism and terrorism on the Internet.
The government, in partnership with community groups, has an important role to play in creating awareness and spreading information about online radicalization among educators, parents, and relevant communities. Existing programs and efforts that serve this purpose need to be continued and expanded. Its forthcoming Internet strategy should set out clearly what the government intends to do, what resources will be devoted to the effort, and how its actions should be evaluated.
When it comes to big corporates’ efforts in combating online digital extremists, in summer 2017, Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, and Twitter came together to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) with the aim of pushing back against terrorism on their respective platforms. The new shared industry adds structure to existing efforts by the companies to target and remove from major web platforms recruiting materials for terror groups. Together, the four tech leaders say they will collaborate on engineering solutions to the problem, sharing content classification techniques and effective reporting methods for users. Each company also will contribute to both technical and policy research and share best practices for counterspeech initiatives.
Thwart Them Before They Strike
As stated by Douglas Rushkoff in an interview with Jason Cranfordteague “Our technologies become more complex while we become more simple. They learn about us while we come to know less and less about them. No one person can understand everything going on in an iPhone, much less pervasive systems.” It seems that the faster, uncluttered, comprehensible something is, the easier it is to become a tool for narrow-minded, conservative people to express their idealism and recruit individuals to be a part of their troop.
For many years, we had believed that extremism and terror would be defeated by oral. But nowadays, it is the vocal that holds the trigger to our bombs and missiles, leaving extremism unopposed and unchallenged. Hence, we can all see how the extremist content present on social media is actively contributing to digital radicalization. As European countries brace for another wave of infections, more than 20,000 German citizens have participated in the protest in the center of Kassel city, despite a court ban and an overall death toll of 74,565 citizens from the pandemic, where there were also confrontations between demonstrators and counter-protesters. This motion is conducted, presumably throughout social media, when there are numerous platforms and communication tools to choose from, just an easy act to connect with someone from the other side who shares the same political ideology.
If proper remedies are not adopted, terrorist groups or anarchists can conveniently utilize social media for communicating their agenda across millions without any geographical or physical barriers, breeding their ideas inside the minds of vulnerable populations. And unfortunately, anyone with an electronic device and an internet connection can serve as a source of extremist content when they share unverified posts, images, and videos, making it more difficult for law enforcement and regulating agencies to track down and eliminate the main source of the extremist content.
If anything, all of these protests and tragedies that we have witnessed in the few recent years should be a reminder for us that dealing with online radicalization must not be a one-off effort. As the Internet keeps changing, so do the methods of those who want to use it to spread hate and incite terror. This needs to change, now or never, and we need to take action fast to thwart them before they strike.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of IVolunteer International.
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