Jillian Peterson and James Densley: Social media sends the risk factors for extremism into overdrive
If we take our outrage offline, we can begin to stop feeding the beast, Peterson and Densley write
Editor’s Note: Jillian Peterson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a psychologist who studies violence. James Densley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St Paul. He is the author of “How Gangs Work” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
So, are social media platforms partly responsible for the organization of hundreds of young, white men in polo shirts around Nazi propaganda and the gut-wrenching violence that followed?
To answer this question, we first need to look at what the journey into extremism looks like at its core, even without social media. Studies show it typically starts with an individual who has a grievance with the world. Maybe it’s poverty. Or abuse. The factory closing. Or the loss of a loved one. This grieved individual is looking for who or what to blame, and runs into someone who gives them a target for their anger.
Through conversation and rhetoric, this target becomes a caricature, thinking becomes black and white, and a mission for revenge is accepted. At some point, a decision is made to cross over from talk to action — often through symbolic violence, designed to attract attention and spark outrage. The response to this violence further fuels and intensifies the rhetoric, attracting new followers, beginning the cycle again.
It would be a stretch to say social media causes extremism. However, it has sent this process into overdrive. Social media enables antisocial people to become social. It lets lost souls “friend” one another and helps lone wolves find the pack. More than a means to perform socially deviant roles collectively, social media offers a platform to do it anonymously. And this is important if you don’t want to be held accountable for your abhorrent, racist views.
From KKK chapters to skinhead groups, anti-government militias to Christian identity collectives, right-wing extremism was always there, but before social media it lived a half-life on the fringes of society. Social media was its resurrection stone. No longer do you need to don the hood to know a Ku Klux Klan member or fly to Syria to learn more about ISIS: You can do it all from your cellphone.
Right-wing extremism is not as much an ideological movement, as advertised, as it is a social one. Their ideology can be written in 140 characters or less. Groups have coalesced around shared individual deficits and, under the swastika hashtag, found a sense of collective identity and belonging that previously did not exist.
By accident or (algorithmic) design, social media has transformed stories that might have been dismissed as conspiracy theories into what some tout as conventional wisdom. Like teenagers and sex, right-wing extremists talk about violence far more than they engage in it, but all that talk dials up the expectation that “everyone is doing it.”
The real perpetrators of extremist violence, in turn, are celebrated on social media, thereby encouraging status-seeking violence. Indeed, right-wing extremists have benefited from social media’s capacity to turn everyday lives into dramatic performances. If the ability to become an instant celebrity from one viral act can inspire livestreamed rape, torture, even murder on Facebook Live, it certainly can inspire violence in the name of hate.
For the once anonymous extremist, the appeal of quantifiable social status — measured in terms of the number of views, likes, retweets and followers you earn — s too great. Hence why the Pulse Nightclub shooter checked his Facebook account during the massacre to ensure he was going viral (he was). And why jihadists post violent beheadings online to ensure we all look before we look away.
We have just watched the latest performance and, as planned, it was a horrific show.
Our collective, unavoidable, justifiable outrage fuels the fire of right-wing extremism. Twitter campaigns to “out” Unite the Right rally attendees and get them fired feels productive, cathartic even, but it also reinforces the rhetoric.
Right-wing extremists who speak to the mainstream media seem almost giddy by our collective response to Charlottesville.
We, the audience, have as much of a role in this process, in this violence, as the “performers” themselves. Our President has chosen to reinforce the rhetoric when he goes off script. The onus is on us to break the cycle.
These days, we are more at risk from attacks by right-wing extremists in this country than by radical Islamic terrorists. We devote millions of dollars and entire departments to identifying, tracking, and preventing the recruitment of home-grown jihadists. Twitter accounts are removed and websites are taken down. Communities are mobilized to recognize radicalization warning signs and taught prevention strategies. Now we must devote the same resources and strategies to combating right-wing extremism.
We need to do more to recognize the racist history of the United States that persists today. But we don’t have to hunt down right-wing extremism to find it. From discriminatory hiring practices to mass incarceration to school policies that disproportionally impact children of color, there is racism built into many of our institutions and policies.
So, let’s take our outrage offline and stop feeding the beast. Let’s examine our own biases. Have coffee with our neighbor or family member whose views or experience differs from ours. Let’s make sure our children are in diverse, compassionate environments. Stand up for kids who don’t get stood up for. Challenge the employment policies at our own offices. Examine our local laws. Run for office.
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Let’s stop being the audience the extremists want. If we walk out of the show, the extremists might be forced to close the curtain.