Peacebuilding, Extremism, and Social Media, Part 1: A Problem

This is the first in a series of blog posts examining peacebuilding, extremism, and social media examining different potential approaches for mitigating the impact of social media on violent extremism and radicalization.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Social media platforms have amplified mis/disinformation and enabled the mass radicalization of violent extremists at an astounding scale over the last decade. Many of these instances were dismissed as “edge cases” by executives in Silicon Valley. Then, on January 6, 2021, extremists fueled by misinformation and incitement via social media attempted an insurgency against the United States government. Much has already been said and written about social media’s role in catalyzing the events of January 6. But we still lack clear and consistent measures for preventing social media from contributing to violent extremism—whether perpetrated in the United States or elsewhere around the world.

From promoting echo-chambers and confirmation bias to algorithmically suggesting extremist content, social media exacerbates and amplifies pre-existing grievances. Lisa Schirch, Senior Research Fellow for the Toda Peace Institute, observed that the profit models and algorithms of social media platforms seem to be increasing polarization and undermining democracy in the US by amplifying false extremist conspiracies.”  

Long before January 6, peacebuilding experts had sounded the alarm, attempting to bring attention to the global impact of social media on peace, conflict, and the preservation of democracy. New York Times’ cybersecurity reporter Sheera Frenkel had been following US-based extremists on social media for years. She noted that the January 6 attack was “not a surprise” and that warnings about it may have been willfully ignored. Experts who follow online extremist discourse can see violent narratives and rhetoric build momentum over time. The message is clear: this has been happening elsewhere for years, and it was only a matter of time before it happened in the US.

What then is the right response? And what is the best type of response? Is it legal? Ethical? Rights-based? How can we ensure that responses are equitable and consistent in different contexts across the world? Is it possible to have a “one-size fits all” approach?

This blog post will be the first in a series addressing these questions. In particular, they will examine different ways to address the role of social media in radicalizing and mobilizing violent extremists, including:

These are by no means the only viable solutions for addressing and preventing the amplification of mis/disinformation fueling violent insurgencies around the world. Regardless, now that we’ve admitted that we have a problem let’s ask ourselves: how can we solve this?