Social Media’s Role in Extremism

Courtesy of Business Insider “Ex-CIA Agent: Raid on Mar-a-Lago Fallout Resembles January 6th”

Introduction

Since 9/11, the situations and circumstances of radicalization have been extensively monitored as the increased presence of radical content in social media challenges societies. This paper reviews radicalization through social media and the procedure of terrorist activity. Researchers have examined extremist conversion through social media, mapping the context, sociological, economic, and religious factors that drive individuals to commit violent acts. Risks may come from individual insecurity and susceptibility, which work in unison with more significant societal factors such as “group polarization and geopolitical factors” (Cherney et al., 2020, p.3). Many researchers believe social media may serve as a feedback loop for spreading extremist content through a four-phase process. Bastung et al. (2020) suggests that extremist ideologies rely on “[the] accessibility of extremist messages, susceptibility and individual’s pre-disposition, terrorist mobilization and sharing/propagating” (p.629). Benson (2014) asserts that the emergence of the internet and social media leaves security institutions with an advantage “the Internet actually provides an opportunity to defang terrorism almost completely” (Benson, D, C., 2014, p.328). Benson claims, “It is also unlikely that the Internet is driving violent activity… the areas where violence is occurring are exactly the opposite locations one would expect if the Internet were increasing terrorist capacity” (Benson, David C., 2014, p.322). Can online social media exposure and interaction with extremist material cause groups to become violently radicalized? This paper will argue there is adequate evidence to suggest that the mechanisms and affordances offered by social media enable groups and individuals to commit acts of terror by investigating the social media presence surrounding the January 6th Capitol Hill Insurrection in 2021. Social media’s use of algorithms and echo chambers and their effect on ideological polarization are foundational knowledge required to understand the mechanisms behind political interaction on online platforms.

Conceptual Framework Methodology

Social Media Algorithms

Although social media algorithms aim to diminish the excess content that users see in their feeds or timelines. Algorithms allow for specific and relevant content to reach consumers, yet this mechanism’s potential hazards is only beginning to be represented in the academic field. Scholars have attributed the algorithm to a foundation for social media echo chambers and individuals who are susceptible or continuously exposed to extremist content may result in radicalization due to the algorithm’s ability to accelerate communication streams and enable a spectrum of users to communicate with one another consistently (Just and Latzer, 2017 as cited in Etter, M., & Albu, O. B., 2021).

Echo Chambers

The echo chamber effect is well established in the research on political communication on the Internet. This is no small matter when considering the drastic and adverse effects it can have on political homophily, especially with individuals on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. While greater interaction between individuals has been shown to promote political and social tolerance (Mutz, 1999 as cited in Colleoni. E, Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A., 2014), the echo chamber effect may ensure these interactions collude to become more progressively extreme as radicalized members encourage violent rhetoric, eventually leading to the execution of extremist attacks.

Ideological Polarization

While social media enables users to interact with a spectrum of political information, the ease of exchange of information allows for users to consume political information and often due to the anonymity and scale of these conversations, they can result in diverse and intense interactions leading to the political radicalization of users. Ideological polarization is the variability between political attitudes, often centring on ideological extremes regardless of socio-political affiliation. Although continued interaction between heterogenous groups has been found to promote ideological tolerance, social media may not always advocate for open-mindedness and the diversity of political views (Wojcieszak and Mutz, 2009 as cited in Colleoni. E, Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A., 2014). There is an argument that in recent years, political interactions in North America have become hostile and contentious events, often focusing on the dehumanization and ridicule of the opposing side rather than furthering the discussion. Similarly, ideological polarization has been the main culprit of violent interactions between groups, and researchers have marked increasing political polarization as a driver of potential extremist activity.

Method

This paper will look at coded screenshots of user interactions and commentary on Twitter. Search filters will be set to tweets with no less than ten likes, retweets, and replies, along with a set of search terms targeting relevant headlines leading up to or during the event. Because of the nature of the events' timeline, I will accept tweets sent out before and during the initial phase of these extremist attacks as relevant data and proceed to code for different aspects of the response. I will divide the data between support and opposition for the event, but the structure and content of the tweet replies may allow for the data to show instances of multiple devices of group think, group polarization and instances of ideological polarization. Because Twitter and other social media platforms allow for a variety of users to interact with posts, those in support and opposition have equal access to share and react to the post content. I will be focusing on the tweets made by those in support of these protests and therefore, I will only highlight aspects of groupthink and group polarization in these tweets as mid-level details. However, I will record ideological polarization between the both the opposition and the supporting groups (Figure 1). These tweets were gathered within a two-week period of March 21st, 2022 — April 3rd, 2022.

Analysis

Groupthink

The echo chamber effect and emergence of social media algorithms may ensure interactions collude to become progressively extreme as radicalized members encourage violent rhetoric. The prominence of echo chambers and core algorithms of social media platforms are major affordances that enable groupthink to thrive in spaces occupied by political extremists. Groupthink is a phenomenon where groups reach a consensus on a decision not because it is correct or best but because it maintains consensus in a group. Extremists prey on this consensus to push potent beliefs into followers' minds. Through Twitter, this phenomenon is most commonly represented in the interaction between those of similar beliefs which often support their group’s ideology or dismantle what they deem misrepresentations.

Figure 1 — Tweets using search criteria during March — April 2022 period.

In Figure 1, two individuals who supported the initial protests defend former President Donald Trump’s comments claiming the election was stolen. It is extremely likely that Twitter algorithms catered this post towards individuals with a common background: in this scenario, those who supported President Trump and the protests. The social media algorithm " reduces complexity brought about by information and interaction overload… that provide users with personalized content to increase their interactions and engagement” (Etter, M., & Albu, O. B., 2021, p.71). Although examining specific algorithmic functions falls beyond this study’s scope, this evidence may be enough to suggest the feeds which cater to the greater public can easily be tampered by political extremists who not only vocalize their beliefs through “tweets” but also utilize hidden social media mechanisms.

Figure 2 — Tweets using search criteria during March — April 2022 period.

Similarly, Figure 2 highlights how indoctrinated people adopt groupthink as a defensive mechanism. These individuals use vivid and fierce descriptions of democratic situations to misrepresent a situation as violent and urge intervention from those who feel similarly. The hashtag #HoldTheLine symbolizes Trump’s supporters as soldiers defending their land’s territory from “Communist Revolutionaries” (Figure 2). These statements are not uncommon on the political side of Twitter as common political search terms (Trump, Biden, Congress, Senate) often yield numerous amounts of political minorities who attempt to garner support for their passionate visions. This may advocate for the algorithm’s role in coordinating potentially violent individuals as “by actively recommending a given conversation under a hashtag, the hashtag algorithm enables users to access information, which might help them to organize as a collective” (Etter, M., & Albu, O. B., 2021, p.71).

Group Polarization As A Compounding Issue

The algorithm serves as a foundation for social media echo chambers and individuals who are susceptible or continuously exposed to extremist content which may result in radicalization. In combination with complex and intricate social groups, the data collected shows that extremists' thoughts compound with one another to create messages or even actions that lie outside the boundaries of normal civil disobedience. Under the structure of political homophily and polarization, social media groups and message boards serve as “constellations of communicative spaces that permit the circulation of information, ideas [and] debates [as an expression] of political will” (Dahlgren, 2005, p.148 as cited in Colleoni. E, Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A., 2014, p.317). This may suggest that well-intentioned acts of civil disobedience have the potential to become catastrophic acts of terrorism.

Although the initial protests had begun with civil intentions, misinformation and group polarization led many protestors to seek physical harm to former Vice President Mike Pence. Many of these ideas originated from online forums such as “The Donald” (r/thedonald; now removed from Reddit) hosted by media channels such as Reddit and 4Chan. This exemplifies the core definition of group polarization: the tendency for groups to make decisions that are more extreme or polarizing than any single member would have done on their own. In this way, social media promotes group polarization by enabling extremist groups to organize and reaffirm their beliefs. These private, unfiltered rooms serve as echo chambers asserting violence as people “tend to prefer information that reinforces partisan sources over that which includes different voices” (Colleoni. E, Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A., 2014, p.71). Furthermore, these groups limit cognitive dissonance individuals encounter when they view mainstream media that contradicts the narrative of their respective news sources or social media groups.

Ideological Polarization As Deflection and Mitigation

Lastly, the vast majority of political media on Twitter is subject to interaction from both ends of the political spectrum. These interactions can serve as micro-aggressions or inflammatory content for users who might express their displeasure and disagreement. The interactions between the polarized groups often result in long threads of political and personal attacks, each group blaming the other as the source of constant tragedy. The most predominant feature of this variation of ideological polarization is its use as justification for the actions of political groups. Regardless of alignment, users will use current and past political events as an argument for civil disobedience, harassment, and violence, most commonly citing the violent actions of opposing groups, to highlight their response as “fair game”.

Figure 4 — Tweets using search criteria during March — April 2022 period.

For example, Figure r features an initial viral tweet expressing the Capitol Hill Insurrection as no more than “3rd world anti-American anarchy” (Figure 4). While almost thirty-three thousand users may agree with the statement, a supporter of the protests responds by stating the actions to be “child’s play compared to ANTIFA and BLM” (Figure 4). Like many other supporters, this user references the protests and violence which followed the death of George Floyd, who was killed at the hands of Derek Chauvin in a case of police brutality. The death sparked mass protests across 140 cities in the US and resulted in the deployment of the National Guard due to protests turning into destructive riots (Taylor, D. B., 2020). As a result, the supporter of the insurrection justifies the actions of his patriots by deemphasizing the violence as the actions of a few unhinged political activists. This response is not uncommon as it represents a major consensus among the group supporters while misrepresenting what an appropriate response (groupthink) would be.

Conclusion

The mechanisms and affordances offered by social media platforms such as Twitter allow individuals to become violently radicalized and act on these emotions and ideologies to strike terror and fear into innocents worldwide. Social media interactions may collude to become more progressively extreme as radicalized members encourage violent rhetoric. While, group polarization capitalizes on misinformation and charismatic extremists to cycle their beliefs without individuals seeking public sources. While it is difficult to narrow down a single interaction to be the leading cause of violence for an individual or group, the impact of these posts is much too similar to other toxic substances: their effect damaging individuals cumulatively. Extremists often use ideological polarization as a cloak to mitigate and deemphasize their actions as justification for pursuing their violent rhetoric. Social media’s role in extremist activities stretches farther than the current state of knowledge. Social media networks' dynamic and constantly changing features enable extremist groups to use these platforms in unique ways that test researchers and security analysts.

There are certain limitations which fall outside the scope of this study, but an important aspect of social media extremism is the rise of populism, idolization, and the prominence of “Fake News.” Specifically, in the instance of the January 6th Capitol Hill Insurrection, the initial protest idea and sentiment were established in public by former President Donald Trump. The academic field has studied the rise of populism and specifically Donald Trump’s neo-conservatism in depth over the last eight years, and its effects are only really beginning to emerge in recent times. Furthermore, Donald Trump's claims that his re-election was “stolen” and “rigged” set forth a dangerous hyperbole that allowed thousands of people to storm Capitol Hill for the sake of eliminating “fake news.” An area of future research may seek to explain the correlation between populist leaders and their impact on the actions of specific and relevant extremist groups. An interesting area of research may include how social media algorithms act as a 3rd party to populist leaders looking to undermine a nation’s political process.

References

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Bastug, M. F., Douai, A., & Akca, D. (2020). Exploring the “demand side” of online radicalization: Evidence from the canadian context. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 43(7), 616–637. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1494409

Benson, David C. (2014). Why the internet is not increasing terrorism. Security Studies, 23(2), 293–328. https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2014.905353

Cherney, A., Belton, E., Norham, S. A. B., & Milts, J. (2020). Understanding youth radicalisation: An analysis of australian data. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print),1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/19434472.2020.1819372

Colleoni, E., Rozza, A., & Arvidsson, A. (2014). Echo chamber or public sphere? predicting political orientation and measuring political homophily in Twitter using Big Data. Journal of Communication, 64(2), 317–332. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12084

Etter, M., & Albu, O. B. (2021). Activists in the dark: Social media algorithms and collective action in two social movement organizations. Organization (London, England), 28(1), 68–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508420961532

Taylor, D. B. (2020). George Floyd protests: A Timeline. The New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html

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