Social media has played a key role in the recent rise of violent right-wing extremism in the United States, including three recent incidents — one in which a man was accused of sending mail bombs to critics of the president, another in which a man shot dead two African-Americans in a Kroger’s grocery store in Kentucky, and a third in which a man is accused of conducting a murderous rampage at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Each of these attacks falls under the definition of right-wing extremism by the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland: “violence in support of the belief that personal and/or national way of life is under attack and is either already lost or that the threat is imminent.” Antiglobalism, racial or ethnic supremacy, nationalism, suspicion of the federal government, obsessions over individual liberty — these are all hallmarks of this network of ideologies, which is, of course, shot through with conspiracy theories.
Yet, even as the body count of this fanaticism grows, the nation still lacks a coherent strategy for countering the violent extremism made possible through the internet.
Instead, the fundamental design of social media sometimes exacerbates the problem. It rewards loyalty to one’s own group, providing a dopamine rush of engagement that fuels platforms like Facebook and YouTube, as well as more obscure sites like Gab or Voat. The algorithms that underpin these networks also promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas.
This dynamic plays out around the globe. In Germany, one study showed that towns with heavier Facebook usage saw more anti-refugee attacks. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Facebook played a significant role in inciting violence.
While the motivations of violent actors may be different, the paths they travel toward violence are similar. [Continue reading…]