David Nwaeze is a freelance journalist and former political organizer based out of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, who has spent over two decades among the U.S. left. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Threat from Social Media Enabled Domestic Extremism in an Era of Stagnant Political Imagination
Date Originally Written: November 19, 2021.
Date Originally Published: November 29, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author contends that despite efforts by legislators and social media platforms to reduce online mediated domestic extremism, America’s political stagnation is a chief contributor to the appeal of extremist movements to the domestic public at large.
Summary: Social media is enabling domestic extremism. Where recruitment and incitement to action once took a great deal more effort for domestic extremists, they can now instantly attract much larger audiences through social media. While some may blame social media echo chambers for the growth of domestic extremism in recent years, equally culpable is stagnant political imagination within the U.S.
Text: The threat of social media enabled domestic extremism in the U.S. is all too real today. Below are some recent examples:
– An 18-year-old Army National Guardsman murders two of his housemates in Tampa, Florida. A fourth is later arrested, tried, and convicted of possessing explosive material. All four are members of a Neo-Nazi organization that’s been built up in the preceding years through social media chatrooms.
– A drive-by shooting takes the life of a security guard on contract with the Federal Protective Service at the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, California. The following weekend, a suspect in the attack kills a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sergeant and injures a deputy seeking to arrest him in relation to the attack. This suspect – along with another man – is arrested. Both suspects were part of an online subculture organized mainly over social media, oriented around preparing for or inciting a second American Civil War, or “boogaloo.”
– A mob of rioters storms the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.. In the conflagration, there were five deaths and an unknown number of injuries. To date, 695 individuals have been charged with crimes associated with this event. Inspired by a mix of social media-mediated conspiracy theories, the January 6th attack would go on to wake America up to the real-world threat imposed by online extremism.
As we enter 2022, Americans are witnessing an uneasy calm following a violent awakening to the threat of social media enabled domestic extremism. What got us here? It is easy to look at recent history as moments in the process of evolution for online radicalization and mobilization toward violence:
– Email list-servs are used in 1999 to organize the shutdown of the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle
– Al Qa’ida uses early social media as a propaganda and recruitment tool
– The Islamic State dramatically improves this technique
To understand where we are, the fundamental character of the present American mediascape needs examination. Today’s mediascape is unlike anything in human history. The internet provides an immense capability for anyone with a connection to transmit ideas and information at nearly instantaneous speeds worldwide. With this opportunity, however, comes the deep risk of information bottlenecks. According to SEO marketing strategist Brian Dean, “93.33% of [the] 4.8 billion global internet users and 85% of [the] 5.27 billion mobile phone users are on social media.” This means that the most popular social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc) substantially impact how internet users connect to news, information, and ideas.
Additionally, in late October 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked documents now known as The Facebook Papers. In her testimony since the leak, she has identified the moral hazard faced by social media companies as their “engagement-based metrics” create “echo chambers that create social norms” which exacerbate the “normalization of hate, a normalization of dehumanizing others.” In her words, “that’s what leads to violent incidents.” In a threat-free environment, this would be worrying enough on its own. However, the American people face many ideological opponents – both at home and abroad – who seek to leverage this media space to violent ends. To understand U.S. vulnerability to these threats, let’s examine the underlying character of our political environment since “the end of history.”
In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Francis Fukuyama presents a case for liberal democracy as the apotheosis and conclusion of historical ideological struggle as viewed through the Hegelian lens. In his words, the end of the Cold War brought us to “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Stemming from this, Fukuyama holds that humanity, once having achieved this “end-point,” would reach a condition in which “here would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.” In other words, he concludes that humanity is no longer capable of achieving far-reaching social change. This political theory – and the phenomenon it sought to characterize – found its expression during the 1990s in the rise of neoliberalism, and its attendant policy shifts, in the anglo-American political space away from the welfare state and toward finance capital mediated economic goals. Such subsequent ideas have come to define the limits of the American political space.
In “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan responded to Fukuyama by framing an international political struggle characterized by the rise of a new impulse toward autocracy, led by Russia and China. Kagan goes on to propose a “concert of world democracies” work together to challenge this new international autocratic threat. Kagan’s solution to “the end of dreams” is to awaken to the ideological struggle at hand and rise to its challenge of identifying and affirming our values and promoting the fulfillment of democratic political dreams abroad.
In the spirit of Kagan’s response to Fukuyama, America won’t rise to meet the dual challenges of social media’s capability to enable far-reaching social change and the inevitability of ideological struggle with domestic extremists until it accepts that history has not ended. Unless America can assertively identify and affirm its underlying national values, the convergence of information echo chambers with stagnant political imagination will continue to motivate this threat to U.S. national security. America has seen the warning signs in the headlines. History illustrates what this may portend if not abated. America’s enemies are many. Chief among them, however, is dreamless slumber.
 Thompson, A.C., Winston, A. and Hanrahan, J., (2018, February 23). Inside Atomwaffen As It Celebrates a Member for Allegedly Killing a Gay Jewish College Student. Retrieved November 19, 2021 from: https://www.propublica.org/article/atomwaffen-division-inside-white-hate-group
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