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Why radical right-wing networks thrive on social media

 

Arthur Bradley

 

Over the past few years there has been a deterioration in public trust and support for democratic ruling parties and institutions across Europe. The political centre of gravity has shifted towards the right, and radical right-wing groups have attracted an increase in support. These groups and their surrounding networks come in various forms, but can be defined by their general resistance to multiculturalism and immigration alongside a vague conviction to safeguard national identity and culture. They embrace populist tactics and claim to fight for the concerns of a silent majority against an out-of-touch, politically-correct liberal elite. Most commonly they stress the impending threat of ‘Islamisation’ by an apparently homogeneous and intolerant Islam. From their point of view, they are engaging in a fight between two camps: good versus evil, honesty versus lies, the ‘truth’ versus spin and self-interest.

 

Social media is a great medium to spread this kind of message. Radical leaders bypass the gatekeepers in the traditional media to interact directly with their audience. Their arguments are not subject to the dilutive effects of fact-checking, contextualisation or expert analysis as they would be in mainstream media. Instead, they use short, sharp emotional appeals, posting inflammatory content intended to spark outrage among their supporters. In November 2017, for example, Britain First’s deputy leader Jayda Fransen (recently convicted of religiously aggravated harassment and banned from Facebook and Twitter) tweeted a video of a violent assault with the caption: ‘Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!’. For Ms Fransen and her supporters, the video was an indication that immigration and Islam have a detrimental effect on western society, and pose an existential threat. She provided no context or evidence to corroborate the claims made in her tweet. Later, it emerged that the perpetrator in the video was ‘not a Muslim, let alone a migrant, but just a Dutch guy’.[1] But the video was accepted by Ms Fransen’s supporters as truth. Principal among these was U.S. President Donald Trump, who retweeted the video to his 43.6 million followers.

 

It is easy to see why inaccurate information exists in such abundance online. Popular discourse on social media is not shaped through meritocracy, but democracy: these are platforms where anyone – irrespective of credentials – can take it upon themselves to be a journalist, essayist, political agitator, or publisher of information. It was discovered in a recent study into ‘fake news’ on twitter over the last ten years that false information outperforms accurate information on the social network. And it was not bots who were primarily responsible for the dissemination of false information, but real people. Because fake stories are often deliberately inflammatory and are specifically designed to provoke an emotional reaction, they are shared more quickly and more widely by Twitter users – meaning that they end up on more people’s newsfeeds than real stories.[2] If false stories relate to a subject like immigration – already a politically-sensitive issue which can evoke emotive and sometimes ill-informed opinion (most Europeans vastly overestimate the population of Muslims in their country, for example)[3] – then they are sure to encourage radicalisation and political polarisation. It doesn’t help that many internet users do not think to question the reliability of the content that they read online. As one respondent in a 2016 study into fake news put it: ‘It’s not that the reputation of the publication did not affect my opinion…but more that I didn’t pay attention to it at all’.[4]

 

But this isn’t just about the stories that are patently false. The ability for users to personalise and self-select the content they see on social media can lead to something called the filter bubble – a term coined by Eli Pariser. A filter bubble occurs when an individual exclusively consumes the news and media content that they already agree with. Over time, the filter bubble will create a subjective evidence base that the individual uses to make sense of the world around them. If we continually absorb information which matches the ideas that we already have, crucial opposing facts and perspectives are likely to be missed – and this leads to confirmation bias. There is research to confirm the existence of this phenomenon online, but with an added dimension: the closer to the edge of the political spectrum an internet user is, the more likely they are to exclusively digest and engage with content that validates and reinforces their existing beliefs.[5] This is visible on the social networks of right-wing extremists on Twitter, who often will cherry-pick new stories that support their agenda whilst overlooking a multitude of others that don’t.

 

The tendency for people to actively absorb information they already agree with is nothing new, but the increased capacity for personalisation on social media newsfeeds is unique. In a June 2016 blog post, Facebook spokesperson Adam Mosseri set out new changes to the way that content would appear on the platform. ‘The goal of News Feed’, he explained, ‘is to show people the stories that are most relevant to them […] something that one person finds informative or interesting may be different from what another person finds informative or interesting’. He went on: ‘When people see content they are interested in, they are more likely to spend time on News Feed and enjoy their experience’.[6] This underlines the social media business model: it is an attention economy. To ensure people keep coming back, Facebook and other mainstream platforms use data collected about their users (including what they have liked, commented on or shared, and what those in their network have interacted with) to create personalised algorithms that organise and prioritise posts according to the things their users are already interested in. This exacerbates the filter bubble effect.

 

These online ideological ecosystems are a by-product of political polarisation and rising right-wing extremism, but they also make it worse. They nurture an environment where exposure to alternative perspectives or contradictory facts is reduced, and with the addition of inflammatory false information, are likely to radicalise perspectives. Radical political movements have typically always been ahead of the curve when it comes to harnessing new technologies and the contemporary far-right are no different. It is has become common for radical right-wing leaders to accrue a larger following on social media than their mainstream political peers. Before their account was removed from Facebook, Britain First had around 2 million likes – far more than Labour or the Conservative party, who have only 1 million and 650,000, respectively, and the founder of the English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson) currently has almost as many Twitter followers as British Prime Minister Theresa May. It should come as little surprise that when Matteo Salvini, leader of Italian anti-immigration party Lega Nord, addressed the media following his electoral successes earlier this month, he had some very specific thankyous to give: ‘Thank god for the internet, thank god for social media, [and] thank god for Facebook’.[7]

 

[1] Angus Harrison, ‘The Truth Behind Those anti-Muslim Videos Donald Trump Just Retweeted’, Vice, 29 November 2017.

[2] Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral, ‘The spread of true and false news online’, Science, 9 March 2018. Available at: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146, last accessed 20 March 2018.

[3] Pamela Duncan, ‘Europeans greatly overestimate Muslim population, poll shows’, The Guardian, 13 December 2016.

[4] https://www.cjr.org/special_report/newyorker_buzzfeed_trust.php

[5] Alex Krasodomski-Jones, ‘Talking to Ourselves? Political debate online and the echo chamber effect’, Demos, September 2016. Available at: https://www.demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Echo-Chambers-final-version.pdf, last accessed 20 March 2018.

[6] Adam Mosseri, ‘Building a better news feed for you’, Facebook Newsroom, 29 June 2016, https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2016/06/building-a-better-news-feed-for-you/ (accessed 20 March 2018).

[7] Mark Di Stefano, ‘Italy’s new far-right star specifically thanked Facebook for the election result because of course he did’, Buzzfeed News, 7 March 2018.

 

Photo Credit: Pixies/ Pixabay 

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