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Social media companies continue to encourage radicalization

The Christchurch shooting was streamed on Facebook Live. The shooter narrated his actions as he carried them out, speaking with the same detachment as a gamer streaming on Twitch. Minutes before the event, the shooter linked his 74-page manifesto, which obsessed over “white genocide” and immigration, to 8chan.

8chan and 4chan have both come under scrutiny following the Christchurch massacre, and while there is notable extremist activity present on both their sites, it is hardly unique to them. The responsibility for the proliferation of online extremism lies not with the cultures of a few fringe platforms, but with the corporate structure of our digital mediums at large.

The internet doesn’t need to be the way that it is. A lot of conversations about social media at present don’t seem to get past the latest Zuckerberg hearings, or the artificiality of online persona. It’s not often people talk about the fact that the internet is not an innate and inalterable plane. It’s built from software, which in turn is owned and managed by people with distinct financial interests.

An article in the New Yorker observes that social media companies did not fully consider the potential consequences of making livestreaming available to the public. On the one hand, people are more empowered than ever before in broadcasting messaging that might not be picked up by mainstream media. Injustices can be exposed with directness, and people have the power to tell their own stories.

On the other hand, other people can use that same technology and livestream actions designed to incite fear and confusion. They can use livestreaming to create their own media conglomerates, with presences on multiple platforms, in order to mislead and indoctrinate.

The incentive for introducing livestreaming to a digital platform is growth. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit are corporations. They want to be able to indicate a growth in activity and engagement on their sites in order to appear competitive and valuable in the market.

Social media is often misconstrued as an inalterable and organic outgrowth of our natural evolution into the digital sphere. This is not the case. These platforms are only what we presently use because they became successful at the right time, and have since then dominated emergent digital technologies and properties. They’re monopolies.

They are also made of software. Software is a tool. The shape and make of a hammer has an effect on its user’s swing, grip and their chances of striking the nail. The same is true of software. As a tool for social interfacing, the shape and operational mechanics of Twitter affect the way users communicate with one another and process information on that platform.

The shape of the internet shapes our experience on the internet. Given that what happens online no longer stays online (and likely never has), our experience on the internet has an immense impact on how people understand their lives.

That’s bad news. A corporate internet structure is designed for the purposes of making money. A social media company makes money and becomes more valuable by indicating growth. Growth is correlated with user engagement. In order to get people to engage, algorithms feed them a stream of content they believe they will enjoy, based on content they’ve clicked on before. If you’ve ever watched a music video of a specific artist on YouTube, you’ll likely be recommended several more similar videos upon your return to the site’s home page.

This seems a harmless enough practice until one considers that a great deal of what’s being bought, sold and exchanged on the internet (and especially social media) is ideology. What we see on social media is processed within a social context. That is, we pay attention to who is sharing what, whether or not we like or admire them, whether our friends like or know them or whether or not they appear to confirm or deny things we are comfortable with. Humans are social animals. Most of our ideas are developed socially.

In search of limitless growth in user engagement, social media algorithms feed users increasingly extreme versions of beliefs they already hold. This pushes them down ideological rabbit holes, and splinters the internet into hyper-extremist and radical bubbles. Radicalization is a form of growth, which companies can use to evidence their market value. But to what end?

An article in the Atlantic recently pointed out that Instagram is a hotbed for right-wing extremism and conspiracy ideology. It is also one of the most popular platforms amongst teenagers.

In fracturing reality for the sake of blind growth, the corporate internet is damaging democracy and free thought. It is facilitating distrust in journalism and creating ideological chaos easily filled by authoritarian power structures.

It’s time to look past social media’s effects and more closely examine, legislate, and re-structure its anatomy. If nothing is done, algorithmically induced extremism will continue to wreak havoc on our reality. There is a better way.

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