How Much Real-World Extremism Does Online Hate Actually Cause?

While calls to censor hate speech and violent extremist content on social media platforms are common, there’s little evidence that online incitement leads to real-world radicalization. Ironically, such calls may actually galvanize extremists, who interpret hostile media coverage, commentary, and censorship policies as confirmation of their victimhood narratives and conspiratorial thinking.

A 2018 journal article entitled “Exposure to Extremist Online Content Could Lead to Violent Radicalization: A Systematic Review of Empirical Evidence” scanned the content of more than 5,000 previous studies, but found that only 11 included “tentative evidence that exposure to radical violent online material is associated with extremist online and offline attitudes, as well as the risk of committing political violence among white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and radical Islamist groups.” The authors acknowledged that they could not conduct a systematic meta-analysis “due to the heterogeneous and at times incomparable nature of the data.” To the extent generalizations were possible, the authors reported that “active seekers of violent radical material [appear] to be at higher risk of engaging in political violence as compared to passive seekers.” If that is the case, then preventing extremist content from being published on large-scale social-media platforms is unlikely to be highly effective, as it is primarily being consumed by those who already have committed to its message.

In 2013, the RAND corporation released a study that explored how Internet usage affected the radicalization process of 15 convicted violent extremists and terrorists. The researchers examined five hypotheses generated by a review of the existing literature:

  1. The Internet creates more opportunities to become radicalized;
  2. The Internet acts as an “echo chamber,” in which individuals find their ideas supported and echoed by like-minded individuals;
  3. The Internet accelerates a pre-existing process of radicalization;
  4. The Internet allows radicalization to occur without physical contact; and
  5. The Internet increases opportunities for self-radicalization.

The researchers found that the Internet generally played a small role in the radicalization process of the individuals studied, though they did find support for the idea that the Internet may act as an echo chamber and enhance opportunities to become radicalized. However, the evidence did “not necessarily support the suggestion that the internet accelerates radicalization, nor that the internet allows radicalization to occur without physical contact, nor that the internet increases opportunities for self-radicalization, as in all the cases reviewed … the subjects had contact with other individuals, whether virtually or physically.”

The limited empirical evidence that exists on the role that online speech plays in the radicalization-to-violence journey suggests that people are primarily radicalized through experienced disaffectionface-to-face encounters, and offline relationships. Extremist propaganda alone does not turn individuals to violence, as other variables are at play.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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