How political engagement on social media can drive people to extremes

The online social networks that social media facilitate can act as powerful distribution channels for political messages. shutterstock

At a recent conference, NSW Police deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas noted concern at the increasing public visibility of right-wing extremism. He suggested that extremist groups’ “increasing use of online and social media strategies” is a factor in encouraging political radicalisation and “divisive notions of us and them”.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane agrees that social media can play a role:

Part of it must have something to do with online mobilisation, the fact that you can attract attention and support more easily through social media and the internet.

Here, both Kaldas and Soutphommasane are highlighting that political debate around global issues is increasingly extended by online engagement across social media.

Social algorithms

Do Australia’s 13 million Facebook users understand that complex algorithms drive the content that is fed to them during their engagement with the platform?

The gateways that we use to access the internet have significant vested interest in retaining our presence. This is their business model. They derive revenue from the data we reveal about ourselves through our engagement, through the personal information that we disclose, the people that we connect with and the links that we follow.

Interaction with the online retailer Amazon illustrates this. If you’ve ever ordered a book from Amazon you’ll notice how insightful the platform is at suggesting other books that might interest you. The more you buy from Amazon, the better it gets at making recommendations. This modelling of personal profile and tailored recommendations is a common feature of the algorithms that shape our online engagement.

This is not entirely altruistic. Online services depend on the critical mass of their users to remain financially viable. They are therefore intensely interested in our hits, clicks, likes, shares, our eyeballs – our attention.

The impact on democracy

This is fine as a highly refined e-commerce model. But as social media becomes our de facto public sphere, some have raised concerns about the impact of this algorithmic paradigm on democracy. Despite early democratic aspirations for the internet, some suggest that these algorithms shape the content with which we engage in a way that does not enhance the nature of our democracy.

Upworthy’s Eli Pariser, for instance, described this algorithmic effect as creating harmful “filter bubbles”. Others talk of “echo chambers”.

Filter bubbles are potentially detrimental to the quality of democracy. They allow people to immerse themselves in a particular world view – be that to justify jihad or the need to “Reclaim Australia”.

Strategically, political groups can use new media to great effect. They employ visceral, emotion-charged imagery and narrative framing in their digital content to create a sympathetic presentation of issues on which they campaign.

For Kaldas, the framing of sensitive political issues – such as immigration – and global events – such as the sectarian conflict that has engulfed Iraq and Syria – in black-and-white terms has created scope for extremists:

… to create incidents in Australia and New South Wales and in Sydney.

The distribution channel

The online social networks that social media facilitate can act as powerful distribution channels for political messages. We had a glimpse of the potential of this mode of political communication in Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign. This swept across the personal networks of social media users globally.

Even more significant has been the way in which Islamic extremist groups such as al-Shabaab and Islamic State (IS) have weaponised social media in order to amplify their strategic capabilities. This is why Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that we need to be aware of the danger of responding to IS as IS presents itself.

This leveraging of online social networks for campaigning makes sense. We are more likely to trust political messages from people we know than, paradoxically perhaps, from politicians.

Social media-driven spikes in public interest create windows of opportunity for activist groups to influence the formulation of public policy. As engagement with the public sphere is increasingly funnelled through social media, this becomes significant not simply in terms of political participation but also in terms of political outcomes.

One-third of young people aged 18-24, for instance, noted that reading a message on social media was likely to influence their vote in the recent UK general election.

Social media has reshaped patterns of news consumption, public discourse and the ways in which political narratives are framed and disseminated. Facebook itself has acknowledged this, in undertaking a study to explore the diversity of information to which users are exposed through the platform.

The Facebook study’s authors note that there is a modest filtering out of diversity in the platform’s news feed. They conclude, however, that this is due to “individual choice”. Content sharing across online social networks is the biggest factor in shaping the information to which users are exposed:

The composition of our social networks is the most important factor affecting the mix of content encountered on social media.

Large-scale studies of the ways in which political groups interact online reflect this conclusion. What these studies suggest is that homophily – the association of like with like – and issues of identity shape the networks with which we engage, both online and offline.

It is for this reason that we need political and civil society leaders to reflect on the language that they use, and to strive for a discourse conducive to social cohesion, in order to shape a civic narrative with which we can all engage.