Global Extremes

Can social networking platforms prevent polarisation and violent extremism?

Our capacity to design social media platforms to prevent polarisation and violent extremism online is contingent upon what we do offline.

Vivian Gerrand
13 November 2020
People gather at the Place de la Republique to pay their respect to assassinated French teacher Samuel Paty in Paris
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Picture by Claux Nathan/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified calls for urgent action to mitigate some of the worst harms societies are experiencing as a consequence of time spent immersed in social media environments. During the lockdowns, this immersion has gone from partial to almost total. While social media enables information to travel fast, it allows disinformation to spread even faster.

Writing from Melbourne, Australia, where we have recently emerged from an extended lockdown, my teenage daughter’s daily screen time had been averaging upwards of 10 hours a day until she returned to school at the end of October. At least 4 of those hours were spent on social media platforms such as Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat. I know I am not alone in struggling to limit not only my daughter’s time on such platforms, but my own time online.

This is hardly surprising since, on the one hand, social media platforms are designed to keep us tethered to them for as long as possible to extract our attention and data. Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma highlights just how much is at stake when we become collectively ‘addicted’ to our devices, contributing to growing awareness that the very design of social media is now driven by profit, often at the expense of truth and human dignity.

An Internet without good governance has been compared to a highway without guardrails. It may be easy for people to connect but it is just as possible for them to come to grief. Even for tech savvy Gen Z Internet users, there are dangers. In the space of one week in September, for example, my daughter both witnessed a man’s livestreamed suicide and unknowingly reposted QAnon material. The asymmetry between our digital practices and their regulation is unsustainable.

On the other hand, social media platforms are sites of bonding and bridging capital on which disparately located people can build strong ties with like-minded others in real time. They enable reinforcing connections that may support community and youth resilience especially in a pandemic, and rather than subjecting them to a wholesale dismissal, we should build upon their positive attributes.

In the lead up to the US election, for example, social media played a critical role in encouraging people to vote. Women of colour influencers like rapper Cardi B and Michelle Obama promoted multimodal messages about a democratic future to their respective 77.4 and 44.2 million followers. Pop artist Lizzo’s images and videos of herself dressed in Americana, singing ‘It’s time to vote’ were a hit on Instagram; the artist used the platform to mobilise her 9.3 million followers to ‘take their protest to the ballot box’, directing them towards how-to-vote instructions.

These efforts have been replicated offline, with Lizzo appearing on the cover of the October issue of American Vogue dedicated to ‘Hope, Justice and Election 2020’. Representative Ilhan Omar featured on the cover of November Teen Vogue with her eldest daughter Isra. Their photo was captioned: ‘Our time is now’.

Social networking sites have given global reach and visibility to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and contributed to the record turnout of early voters in the US, a significant proportion of them from marginalised Black communities whose votes were deliberately suppressed in the 2016 election.

Nevertheless, we need to reckon with the reality that extended time spent in closed groups, where there may be limited exposure to different perspectives and information sets, is having dramatic material social consequences that deepen polarisation and threaten democracy.

Volumetric hate-based abuse is on the rise. As was chillingly evident in the recent murder of French highschool teacher Samuel Paty, such abuse sets the scene for violent action. Paty was decapitated in October for teaching a class on freedom of expression. The radicalised young man responsible for the murder was not a student at the school. Rather, he had become aware of the campaign against the teacher on social media and saw it as an opportunity for martyrdom. Paty’s beheading inspired yet another terrorist attack two weeks later in Nice.

The community resilience fostered by social media sits uneasily alongside polarised, exclusivist forms of resilience that are facilitated by social media sites’ calibration to the detriment of social cohesion. Anti-social forms of resilience have been the subject of considerable sociological research as efforts to counter radicalisation to violent extremism have proliferated. This year, malicious actors have had a dream run of access to a global audience more vulnerable than ever to their influences.

Recruitment into violent extremism has diversified in the pandemic. The alarming infiltration of divisive QAnon ideology into unlikely demographics including wellness communities through prominent lifestyle influencers, has led some to radicalise on ‘conspiritual’ trajectories of militancy.

Scholars of violent extremism have long emphasised that ideology alone is not sufficient in leading people to violent action

To address the complexities of this fast-moving landscape, we must understand the intersectional motivations driving contemporary violent extremist behaviour. This includes devoting more substantial attention to channels of communication that support pro-social resilience to polarisation.

Promising initiatives include the de-platforming of anti-social actors, education on how to identify fake news, the banning of QAnon material, and the promotion of trusted sources of information about hate based extremist groups. A recalibration of the recommendation algorithms that rule online platforms to provide users with content that is not simply a reflection on their preferences will also be vital. On their own, however, these strategies are limited.

Conspiracy and terrorist organisations are responding dynamically to the removal of their content, and have increased their dark web and offline activities in ‘crossline’ methods of recruitment. It is clear that the design of Internet affordances needs to be matched by confronting the underlying vulnerabilities that lead to people being attracted to such anti-social influences in the first place.

Scholars of violent extremism have long emphasised that ideology alone is not sufficient in leading people to violent action. A conducive environment of cultural and socio-economic conditions is also necessary. At a time of existential uncertainty and planetary trauma in which the novel coronavirus is here to stay, simple explanations for what we are enduring have obvious appeal. Making meaning out of chaos and leveraging fear for political gain are what conspiracy and violent extremist groups do best.

Our capacity to design social media platforms to prevent polarisation and violent extremism online is contingent upon what we do offline. An intersectional, crossline approach to building pro-social resilience to polarisation and violent extremism is crucial. Together with targeted online interventions, competent, compassionate and democratic governance can provide alternative meaning making by restoring trust and serving the public good. Transitioning to a world in which there are equal opportunities to share power and live with belonging, dignity and purpose through resources that protect people from poverty will make the destructive mission of violent extremist groups much more difficult.

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