This image originally accompanied a Nov 24, 2018 New York Times editorial, "The New Radicalization of the Internet," by Woody Harrington
The first time I saw a riot was in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri; watching dispatch reporting by Vice News on YouTube about how the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson had started a conversation about police brutality and police violence against African Americans. I would go onto Facebook and watch traffic camera footage of protests going onto the highways and blocking traffic to raise awareness. I remember watching all of this from my barracks room while being stationed in South Korea, over 6,000 miles away, and thinking, “who cares?” I didn’t know it then, but that moment, was the beginning of my journey into becoming radicalized into the far-right culture.
The journey would last three years, and included hours of watching far-right propaganda videos, debating the ideas of “cancel-culture” and how it is damaging society, and supporting the actions of fascist street fighting gangs like the ones led by Robert Rundo and RAM (Rise Above Movement) whose white supremacist motives are couched in a belief that they are fighting against a “modern world” and “destructive cultural influences” (adl.org). The journey would end in August of 2017 after the events of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina where a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people. RAM and other street gangs were out in full force in Charlottesville as well, leading to arrests of several members for violent attacks. The events that followed that day opened my eyes to the ways that I was being indoctrinated into becoming a fascist and marked a turning point in my life.
After becoming aware that I was susceptible to far-right ideology, I had to reevaluate myself and my beliefs to ensure that I am not falling back into an extremist mindset. I still don’t fully understand how I almost became an extremist. I decided to do more research into far-right extremism to try and learn how their message spreads. I felt compelled to find out why I was being exposed to propaganda. If I knew why I was being fed extremist content, then I would know how to identify it and work against it.
Aidan Hinshaw, an Adjunct Professor of Communication at Walla Walla University, was able to sit down with me and talk about some of the research he had done into how extremist organizations are able to recruit and mobilize their message.
“A few years back I started noticing how easy it was for sites like YouTube to start serving me extremist or borderline extremist content algorithmically when it wasn't anything that I was seeking out,” said Professor Hinshaw. “I would watch a harmless video that apparently appealed to demographic groups similar to extremist content. The fact I was watching videos on things like video games, pop culture and movies, plus the fact that I was a white male in my 20’s, made a huge difference in what was being suggested to me by YouTube. Once I started looking into this I noticed a phenomenon where within two or three recommended videos I was being served some aggressive extremist content.”
I quickly began to recall the times that I had found extremist propaganda on social media. All I had to do was open my Instagram account and scroll their search feeds to find videos of streets fights. Men who were carrying American flags and squaring off against other protesters who were dressed in all black, fighting with skateboards.
“The best way to get a message across is to get people to engage with it,” Professor Hinshaw said. “Far-right propaganda is able to spread thanks in part to the way that social media algorithms are designed.” The algorithms on social media are designed to get people to engage with the pieces of content that are posted onto the website or app. “Right-wing populism is always more engaging," a Facebook executive who remained anonymous said in a recent interview with POLITICO, when pressed on why far right content drives such high interactions (Thompson). The executive said the content speaks to "an incredibly strong, primitive emotion" by touching on such topics as "nation, protection, the other, anger, fear" (Thompson). Fear is often the key factor in how extremists are able to recruit new followers.
Members of the far-right have often talked about how the change in American society is an attack on traditional American values. “It touches on the growing awareness that young white men have of their own racial identity,” said Professor Hinshaw. “It used to be that if you were white you didn't ever have to think about the fact that you were white. As these individuals encounter an increasingly multicultural world, and an increased emphasis on diversity initiatives, there’s a feeling of ‘we have to hold on to something, this identity, that we're losing.’ The reality is it's not a zero-sum game. The reality is that these initiatives increase everybody's quality of life. These individuals aren’t losing out, but that feeling of identity-based grievance has still been a major trend in the last four or five years.” Unfortunately, the way that extremists are able to get into the minds of unsuspecting recruits is not as subtle as you would expect.
It took me almost three years to realize that I was being indoctrinated into the far-right. Much of the content that I was looking at was centered around conservative news programs and social media influencers who made videos that ranted against “cancel culture.” A lot of their talking points were about how “freedom of speech” is under attack, the Democrats want to destroy the Second Amendment and take away all guns, and that the Black Lives Matter movement is an attack against law enforcement. And I ate every single one of those talking points like it came from the gospel.
According to a 2016 study done by Pete Semi and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), I was exactly the kind of person that far-right extremists would want to recruit. According to their 2016 report to Homeland Security, Recruitment and Radicalization Among US Far-Right Terrorists, "Recruitment can either occur in formal or informal settings such as bars, schools, music shows, neighborhoods, online or between peers. In some cases, recruitment strategies target a specific population (e.g., youth, ex-military), and other times these strategies are more general, intending to promote the group’s ideological position to a relatively broad audience." Being a member of the military, I was susceptible to a lot of algorithm-driven content on social media that shared similar ideology with the far-right.
Professor Hinshaw explained how social media was able to feed on my weakness. “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have this ability to endlessly serve you content. Extremist groups have been taking advantage of those algorithms to drive recruitment. They’re thinking ‘Hey, we know that this demographic group of young white men are generally interested in video games and superhero movies. Well, we have some channels where we don't ever actually talk about fringe content, but we do make some pretty edgy jokes at the expense of marginalized groups. We can trust the algorithms to move people in our direction.’ It’s been very effective” he said.
I followed Instagram pages that showed combat footage from overseas and read books on the experiences of the soldiers who had served before me. I thirsted for a chance to fight the people who the media described as the enemies of America. I would watch videos of street fighting at protests and post on social media about how law enforcement should step aside and let both sides of protesters fight each other to the last man standing just to see who would win. I genuinely began to think there was some kind of civil war coming to America. And I had begun to ask myself what I would do if conflict really came to America. During the time right after Donald Trump became president, I began to see a lot more videos about fighting protestors and propaganda pieces mocking left-wing protestors who were upset that Trump had gotten elected. States and cities began taking down statues of Confederate Civil War figures, and I saw the response to those statues being taken down was a sign of things to come.
I had never believed in the underlying white supremacist message inside of the propaganda that I had been watching. I had always believed that neo nazis and white supremacists were the worst that American society had to offer and hated them with a passion. I thought that they were people who sat in their trailers, drank beer, smoked meth, and worked at gas stations. I didn’t think that they would actually do something or show their faces in public like they did in Charlottesville. The absolute shock of seeing white supremacists and neo nazis marching in the street made me feel the need for violence, but I was also shocked by the fact that President Trump did not condemn the far-right rally. Instead, he claimed that there were good people “on both sides” of the rally, “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” he said (Vox). Other social media channels had condemned marchers who stood with Nazi flags and burned tiki torches, but no one said anything about the President not condemning the fact that there were neo nazis marching in the streets of America.
I went into work after the attack and listened to my coworkers make jokes about the protest, saying that it was the protestors “right to freedom of speech” to stand there with their Confederate flag. I blew up on everyone in the room and told them, “you don’t get to be a white supremacist and call yourself a proud American.” I had had enough. I knew that if I continued to be okay with actions committed by those who marched in Charlottesville, that I would be walking down a path that I could not easily return from.
The months that followed were full of news articles about the rally and how it had been organized. The news called on social media to restrict content that could be considered extremist in nature. “If we want to shrink these groups then we can’t let them have a space to meet en mass. Nothing like we saw on January 6th, nothing like we saw at the Charlottesville rally, none of the other violent or intimidating shows of white extremist or supremacist activity would have happened if an individual’s group of extremist buddies is limited to the five dudes they sit down and have a drink with on the weekends,” said Professor Hinshaw
Far right extremism is no longer a small “fringe network” in “one little town in Washington, Idaho or somewhere in Texas,” he said. “They’ve joined into several large groups thanks to social media. It's exploded since everyone dabbling in extremism can connect to each other.”
Being able to look back on the darker parts of my life, I have to ask myself, what kind of beliefs am I willing to expose myself to? I hope that we can all ask ourselves the same question: what kind of message do we want to expose to ourselves and to others? What assumptions about my demographics, vulnerabilities, and susceptibilities do far right groups hope to exploit through social media algorithms? I hope that we will be able to answer these questions before someone else answers them for the rest of us.
Emerson Soule is an Air Force veteran and a student at Boise State University. He spends his free time researching the history of far-right organizations in America and their integration in modern society. He is an unapologetic critic of the militia movement.