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The Radicalization of the American Mind
And how social media crackdowns inadvertently help fuel it.
Imagine you’re debating a contentious issue with a friend. You listen to their point, they listen as you respond, but then things start getting heated. They start condemning your views as reprehensible and beyond the pale. As you attempt to respond, they suddenly scream “Shut up!”
Would being told to shut up ever change your opinion? We imagine not. Would their unwillingness to even hear you out make you even more sure that you must be right? Perhaps.
Well, screaming “Shut up!” is effectively what social media companies are doing to radical users. Should we really be surprised that the effect of censoring them and shutting them down isn’t changing their minds—but actually just further radicalizing them?
In the digital age, social media has become our home for political discourse. It has allowed many more voices to participate in conversations and trade ideas. But it has also polarized us. We’re all guilty of following people on Twitter who confirm our beliefs. Naturally, moving into our own little spheres has made us more tribal and more hostile to the other side.
A 2019 study found that on both the left and right, people overestimate how prevalent extreme views are on the opposite side—something that was especially true of those who rely on social media for their news.
This is the modern manifestation of the anthropological phenomenon schismogenesis, which contends that group identity is formed in opposition to competing groups. Like the ancient Athenians and Spartans, by defining ourselves as being “the complete opposite of those guys,” we become less and less like each other—and more and more confident that our way is the right way.
This has been true since social media’s inception. But it’s only been worsened by a series of mass bans, particularly on Twitter, the digital home for all things political. In November 2016, Twitter unleashed its first mass alt-right ban. The following year more alt-right and white nationalist accounts were purged after the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia. And in 2018 Alex Jones and InfoWars were kicked off, too.
To be clear, these groups tout some despicable views. But has censoring them made us better off? No. In fact, it actually seems to have increased radicalization in these groups. When platforms “cancel” users based on their speech and beliefs, they quarantine them into circles with less viewpoint diversity.
Take the rise of Gab, a right-wing Twitter alternative, which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) dubbed “an online hub for extremist and conspiratorial content.” The platform’s growth is tightly correlated with mass censorship events on Twitter. We know that thanks to data from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) and the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
The first major spike in people flocking to Gab took place when Twitter instituted its first mass ban of alt-right users in November 2016. From there, a consistent pattern emerges wherein new Gab accounts are created following mass bans by mainstream platforms.
The most dramatic incident was a huge influx of users in August 2018 after Proud Boys accounts were purged from Twitter. According to NCRI’s analysis, “months when a Twitter mass ban took place corresponded to more than double the percent of new members on Gab than a typical month.” And it’s not just a matter of speculation—it’s a matter of conversation on Gab. The word “ban” on the platform spikes in lockstep with mass censorship episodes. In fact, “ban” is mentioned in 3 percent of all posts on the platform, putting it in the top 0.1 percent of word usage frequency.
This suggests that a major motivating force for getting—and staying—on Gab is the experience of being squeezed out elsewhere. As NCRI co-founder and chief science officer Joel Finkelstein told us:
Censorship underscores the formation of grievance communities, and it doesn’t rehabilitate the people that have been censored. We’ve seen that in our research and other people’s research. It tends to lock in grievances amongst people who are deeply committed, rather than actually rehabilitate them, and then, when those grievances reach a boiling point, it spills out into real world mobilizations, protests and violence.
A recent study by Tamar Mitts, Nilima Pisharody, and Jacob Shapiro found that groups removed from Facebook for promoting anti-vaccine content used between 10 percent and 33 percent more anti-vaccine keywords on Twitter afterward. And a similar phenomenon occurred when Parler was removed from the Apple app store, resulting in an influx of right-wing users on Telegram.
These findings suggest that censorship on one platform may lead to an increase in the amount of similar content on other platforms. This is the unintended consequence of heavy-handed moderation policies.
Social media censorship creates new ecosystems that are ripe for group polarization. As Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein explains in an essay on group polarization: “People who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion [with each other], to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm.”
For a vivid portrayal of how exclusion makes polarization, paranoia, and radicalism far worse, we highly recommend Andrew Callaghan’s documentary This Place Rules, which highlights some of the protests and personalities that played large or small roles in the run-up to, and day of, the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Callaghan has a grave warning about how badly attempts to censor can backfire: “When you take someone who talks about a deep state conspiracy to silence him and his followers and then you silence him and his followers it only really adds to his credibility,” he says in the film. When you’re dealing with people who believe there’s a conspiracy to shut them up, do absolutely nothing that looks anything like a conspiracy to shut them up.
Simply put, censorship doesn’t change people’s opinions. It encourages them to speak with people they already agree with, which makes political polarization even worse.
Greg Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
Rikki Schlott is a New York Post columnist and co-host of the Lost Debate podcast.
From THE CANCELING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. Copyright © 2023 by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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