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:
- Account suspensions. From the permanent suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account in the wake of the January 6 attacks to the banning of the Burmese military’s Facebook page following the military-led coup in Myanmar, social media giants have sought to silence inciters of insurrection more aggressively than ever before. Their efforts, however, have been met with skepticism and are inconsistent. The ACLU and others argue that Trump’s ban violates freedom of expression rights. Other human rights groups scrutinize the blatant double standard inherent in the company’s action against a politician in the US while failing to act comparably to protect peace abroad.
- Content moderation and oversight. Content moderation has been one of the more common yet contentious approaches. Facebook has created an independent oversight board to deal with the matter. But with the board weighing in often months after the content moderation occurs and indications that the company’s content moderation operations and employees are underqualified and insufficient, there are significant concerns with this approach. Legislation forcing companies to remove extremist content under threat of financial and criminal sanction (such as from Brazil, France and Germany) is also under fire for leaving it up to private companies to decide what content is hate- or violence-promoting and the risk this poses to freedom of expression.
- Reform of ranking algorithms. Another approach seeks to change the algorithms social media companies use to generate clicks and keep users engaged for longer. As some US government leaders are coming to realize, something needs to be done to deter the automated amplification of echo chambers and click-generating conspiracy theories that exacerbate the transition from online speech to offline violence.
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?