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Most of the discussion surrounding the recent capitol riots has focused on President Trump’s culpability. There seems to be a sense that if we can just get to January 20th without anything else happening, then we’ll be OK – that once Biden takes over, the problem will be gone. I’m not sure it’s so simple. While some have made reference to the fact that even after January 20th there will still exist a population which does not see the election results as legitimate, most seem to feel that because these people are so crazy-extreme, bizarre and outright criminal in many respects, that once we have made some arrests and once social media takes a more liberal policy toward blocking those ultra conservative accounts that incite violence, that things will finally be OK. This line of thinking hopes that after these arrests are made, and after the “worst of the worst” social media accounts are frozen, the remaining extreme right (as opposed to the ultra-crazy-criminal-right who were either arrested or had their accounts frozen) will have a “come to Jesus” moment where they will collectively realize that this isn’t just a game anymore and will then decide to come to their senses; self-moderating their own views as they see the light of the more educated, liberal view of things. Again, things may not be so simple.
There have always been demagogues and extremists and hooligans and criminals. But in the past, in order to create a mass movement one had to actively and purposefully convince the masses through carefully crafted propaganda. Such was the case with Nazi fascism and Soviet communism. However today a new dynamic is at work – social media and the ad revenue-based, artificial intelligence algorithms underlying the “feeds” which inform large sections of the public. This was explained in some detail in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” Because the algorithms generating individual feeds are oriented not to what one prefers or enjoys reading or viewing, but specifically to what will keep the user engaged for the longest period of time, items which generate a stronger emotional response are promoted. This causes individual feeds to become more emotionally triggering and more extreme as this results in higher viewing times and thus more ad revenue. The algorithms are not nefarious in and of themselves, but the result is that viewers become unwittingly more polarized and more emotionally invested in their opinions. (in all directions – leftwards and rightwards)
Prior to social media, in order for a demagogue to cause mass extremist action, although there had to exist an underlying sense of discontent (often economic) as well as some latent bias which could be manipulated (often xenophobia or antisemitism); the demagogue had to work hard, through force of personality and additional mass propaganda, in order to effect mass extremist action. Today, in the social media age, groups of already-radicalized people roam free, such that a demagogue can cause mass extremist action almost by accident. The demagogue doesn’t have to work as hard as they used to – no additional propaganda is necessary. In the social media age of emotionally triggered, AI generated, ad revenue-based, hyper-personalized feeds, it doesn’t even require a well thought out plan – just a few social media rants and speeches may be enough to cause mass extremist action. Witness both the recent capitol riots and the only slightly-less-recent multi-state BLM riots. In both cases the riots ended up spinning out of control even beyond what the original organizers themselves had intended. In each case it was as if a self-perpetuating monster had been created which once started could not be stopped. And in each case the degree, scope, and depth of radicalization of the extremist mob was thoroughly underestimated.
So yes, the ultra-crazy-extreme right is indeed crazy. But instead of simply congratulating ourselves that we’re not like that, and figuring that we can finally just move on now that we’ve finally cut the head off the snake by defeating Trump, we had best realize that unless something dramatic changes with the way we – all of us – use and interact with social media, this may be just the tip of the extremist iceberg.