May 19, 2017

The Online Radicalization We're Not Talking About

Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis
New York Magazine
May 18, 2017

When you hear the word radicalization, what usually comes to mind is young people turning to Islamic fundamentalism. The internet has proven to be an effective platform for radicalization of this kind; ISIS has a host of YouTube channels, chat rooms, and Twitter accounts that are extremely effective at channeling the energy of disaffected and disenfranchised young people.

But the far right is doing virtually the same thing — and possibly even more effectively. In fact, a recent study shows that white-supremacist Twitter accounts have increased more than 600 percent since 2012, and outperform ISIS accounts by every possible metric. We’ve already seen the violence that can emerge from this trend: Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger were both radicalized in online far-right communities before their respective shootings.

For the last six months, we’ve been researching how far-right groups, such as the alt-right, white nationalists, and men’s-rights activists manipulate the mainstream media to amplify their ideas and shape news narratives to their advantage. (You can read the report we produced here.) These communities gather on boards like 4chan and the Reddit clone Voat, where they collaboratively develop ideas and draw up messaging strategies. Then they use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to popularize hashtags, spread talking points, and boost news stories coming from their favorite media figures.

A successful story is one that moves from far-right sites like Breitbart and Infowars to mainstream newspapers or cable news. If you’ve read this week’s conspiracy-mongering stories about the supposedly suspicious death of DNC employee Seth Rich — or if you’ve read in the past about the rise of White Student Unions on college campuses, or “Pizzagate” — you’ve seen the fruits of their efforts.

As internet and media scholars, we began this project focused on media manipulation and the spread of misinformation. But as we delved into these spaces, we noticed that one of the biggest trends taking place had been flying under the radar. And that is far-right radicalization.

They don’t call it radicalization, of course. They call it “taking the red pill.” This metaphor comes from The Matrix, where the protagonist, Neo, is offered a red pill or a blue pill by his mentor Morpheus. If Neo takes the blue pill, he goes back to his cubicle-dwelling, workaday life. If he takes the red pill, the reality of the Matrix is revealed to him.

“Red-pilling the normies” is a primary goal of far-right movements. They want to convert people — especially young men — to their way of thinking. What the red pill actually reveals depends on who’s offering it. To men’s-rights activists, being red-pilled means throwing off the yoke of popular feminism and recognizing that men, not women, are the oppressed group. To the alt-right, it means revealing the lies behind multiculturalism and globalism, and realizing the truth of isolationist nationalism. To conspiracy theorists, it may mean accepting the influence of the New World Order on society. To white supremacists, it means acknowledging that Jewish elites control the culture and are accelerating the destruction of the white race. Red-pilling is the far-right equivalent of consciousness-raising or, in today’s lingo, becoming “woke.”

The far right plays on a much broader dislike of “political correctness” among many young men who feel alienated from mainstream culture. These men may have a hard time finding like-minded friends in their day-to-day lives, or connecting with romantic partners. Some have economic challenges, and refer to themselves as “NEETS,” an acronym for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” As a result, they are often very resistant to the idea of “male privilege” or “white privilege,” as they don’t recognize themselves as privileged. In fact, they may see what economic and social capital they do have slipping away. These disillusioned men are perfect targets for radicalization, and it’s a surprisingly short leap from rejecting political correctness to blaming women, immigrants, or Muslims for their problems.

Thanks to the internet, these men are more accessible to the manipulations of extremists than ever before. Like radical Islamists, the far right has developed strategies that exploit the sweet spot between disillusionment and extremism. One of their main tactics is purposely diluting their most extreme views to woo a broader audience. The neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer hosts a “memetic Monday,” where community members create image macros designed to be shared on Facebook and Twitter; these images, which espouse ideas from the openly racist to the mainstream conservative, function as “gateway drugs” to more radical ideas.

It helps that the extremists are also extremely adept at making their ideas palatable, by using irony and humor. Internet trolls have been using racist and sexist language as a shock tactic for years, giving it a veneer of edgy irreverence. Actual hate groups can draw people in using humor, while also normalizing their most extreme ideas.

What concerns us most is that this radicalization seems to be spreading across the internet — and once groups have been red-pilled on one issue, they’re likely to be open to other extremist ideas. Online cultures that used to be relatively nonpolitical are beginning to seethe with racially charged anger. Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities — having accepted run-of-the-mill anti-feminism — are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas. “Ironic” Nazi iconography and hateful epithets are becoming serious expressions of anti-Semitism.

Countering the burgeoning far-right extremism is difficult. Extremists may be using new technologies, but any effective response will require tackling long-standing racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic beliefs. The movement is intrinsically linked to misogyny and investments in traditional masculinity, which aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

However, given the similarities between far-right and Islamic radicalization, it’s worth examining the efforts by political scientists and counterterrorism experts to combat the latter. They recommend staying away from heavy content moderation (which fuels accusations of censorship), and instead crafting and spreading messages that speak to young men’s alienation and disenfranchisement, without using scapegoats. Since criticism from the mainstream media — or worse, the left — is easy to dismiss out of hand, former far-right extremists who’ve since rejected the red pill can be enlisted to provide counterexamples and point out inconsistencies in extremist worldviews.

This is a hard problem, but it needs to be examined head-on. Despite the clever memes and the shock content, embracing far-right beliefs isn’t edgy or rebellious or funny. It’s simply continuing a disgraceful and all-too-current thread of American history. And we must recognize it in order to effectively confront it.

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