This is an excerpt from Extremism by J. M. Berger. Extremism is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series and explains what extremism is, how extremist ideologies are constructed, and why extremism can escalate into violence.

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The Future of Extremism

Extremism has plagued humanity in cycles throughout recorded history. But while extremism has always been with us, so too have the forces that contain and defeat it. This battle will probably never end, but it is far from pointless. With each new wave, we rise again to the challenge and make gains for future generations.

Yet while extremism is an old problem, it is also always new. Extremist ideologies build on previous ideologies, evolving to fit the times. As human society becomes more complex and interconnected, so too does extremism. Extremism is a socially transmitted disease; ideologies are transmitted when one person communicates with another. When communication technology changes, extremism changes as well.

The invention of the printing press is widely credited with kicking off a transformative change in Western society, notably in spreading the ideas of the Reformation and associated apocalyptic beliefs. The rise of electronic communication—radio, film, and television—was similarly transformative.

Broadcast and film provided powerful advantages to extremist movements with enough resources to exploit them, such as the Nazi regime. But most extremist organizations are small, with limited resources. Professional film and video editing used to be expensive, requiring highly technical skills. Broadcasting to more than a niche audience cost more still and was usually subject to government regulation.

These factors imposed a natural ceiling on what most extremist movements could achieve. If an extremist ideology cannot reach a mass audience, it cannot become a mass movement. While some movements still managed to clear that hurdle, media limitations slowed their growth to a deliberate pace.

When robust social media platforms came on the scene in the early 21st century, futurists waxed on about their transformative power. Some observers, including me, were skeptical, believing that the change in communications technology was more incremental than revolutionary. I was wrong.

Social media wrought dramatic changes over society in a very short period of time, and in many different venues. For extremists, it was a game-changer. Extremists had been largely priced out of the broadcast revolution, but social media provided an inexpensive platform to reach massive audiences, emphasizing virality and controversy over social norms.

Extremists quickly established small and sometimes significant beachheads on social media, but Islamic State was the first to fully realize the potential of the new technology. Before the social media platforms developed a coherent response, Islamic State recruiters garnered thousands of supporters online and guided them in synchronized action, simultaneously producing highly professional propaganda using newly inexpensive video editing and publishing technologies. The organization’s widely distributed content mixed ultraviolence with millenarian utopian visions in novel ways. The result was an unprecedented wave of jihadist extremist recruitment.

While Islamic State’s extreme violence dominated headlines, white nationalists were concurrently adopting and developing many of the same social media techniques, building an audience more slowly. These efforts started prior to the rise of Islamic State and blossomed in the late 2010s, fueling the current resurgence in ideological racism.

While there is evidence that social media use fosters increased tolerance and diversity in many users, the current generation of social media platforms provides benefits that uniquely empowered extremist movements relative to their mainstream counterparts. While research on this subject is ongoing and the online environment is in constant flux, the current evidence suggests that social media leads a majority of people toward centrism and inclusivity, even as it empowers and accelerates polarization and extremism for a significant minority. Factors aiding the spread of extremist views include:

  • Anonymity: Extremist adherents can share their views and recruit with only a limited risk that their real identities would be exposed, insulating them from both legal and social repercussions.
  • Discovery: Extremist recruiting is a game of small percentages. Most extremist movements appeal to small populations, and for violent extremists, the pool is even smaller. Through search, social network analysis and algorithmically generated recommendations, social media empowers extremists to find these small pools of people efficiently, and it empowers curious people to make contact with extremist adherents and recruiters with relative ease.
  • Physical Security: Before social media, the best way for a curious person to learn about a violent extremist movement was to meet one of its adherents in person. This was inherently risky since it involved spending time with potentially violent people. Now, the curious can interact with violent extremists absent that physical risk, building trust and comfort before ever meeting in the real world.

Notes:

1 Jensen, Carolyn. Review of the printing revolution in early modern Europe." LORE: Rhetoric, Writing, Culture 12 (2001); Woodard, Colin. “The Power of Luther’s Printing Press.” Washington Post. December 18, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-luthers-printing-press/2015/12/18/a74da424-743c-11e5-8d93-0af317ed58c9_story.html?utm_term=.5169e1f910c3; Edwards Jr., Mark. “Apocalypticism Explained.” PBS Frontline. Undated, accessed November 10, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/martinluther.html

2 Adena, Maja, et al. "Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130.4 (2015): 1885-1939.

3 Berger, J.M. “Internet Provides Terrorists With Tools -- Just Like Everyone Else.” Intelwire.com. July 31, 2011.  http://news.intelwire.com/2011/07/internet-provides-terrorists-with-tools.html

4 Berger, J.M. “#Unfollow: The Case for Kicking Terrorists Off Twitter.” Foreign Policy. February 20, 2013. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/02/20/unfollow/; Stern and Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, op. cit., chapters 10-11.

5 Berger, J. M., and Bill Strathearn. "Who Matters Online: Measuring influence, evaluating content and countering violent extremism in online social networks."

(2013); Berger, J. M. "Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter. A Comparative Study of White Nationalist and ISIS Online Social Media Networks." GW Program on Extremism (2016).

6 Barberá, Pablo. "How social media reduces mass political polarization. Evidence from Germany, Spain, and the US." Job Market Paper, New York University 46 (2014); Boxell, Levi, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro. Is the internet causing political polarization? Evidence from demographics. No. w23258. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017.

7 Berger, J.M. “The Toxic Mix of Extremism and Social Media.” PBS Nova Online. September 7, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/military/extremism-social-media/