To help evaluate the impact of social media algorithms on extreme violence, we will try to answer these questions:
- What are the trends in America regarding extreme violence?
- Are individuals engaged in extreme violence influenced by social media?
- How do social media algorithms work, and what is their purpose?
Extreme Violence Increases in America
A serious increase in extreme violence is the conclusion of the May 2021 Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism report created by the combined efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security. This report submitted to the Intelligence Committee (IC) of Congress and released to the public summarizes a horrifying reality.
Individuals who are violent domestic extremists (DVEs) and small cells of DVEs are more inclined to engage in violent attacks than any organization. An individual’s radicalization is more likely to come from consuming violent extremist content online than from joining organized groups and participating in person.
Social Media’s Influence
Research supported by the National Institute of Justice concluded that social media influences individuals who participate in extreme violence and hate crimes.
The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, examined social media use by extremists. The study, Social Learning and Social Control in the Off and Online Pathways to Hate and Extremist Violence, focuses on cases after 2007. This era is the time when social media platforms experienced significantly-increased usage.
Here are some of the findings:
- 58% of the DVEs believe radical right-wing ideology
- 40% got motivation by radical Islamic ideology
- 2% had an association with a far-left ideology
Social Media Use
DVEs have social media accounts to connect with like-minded extremists. They use social media to publish their manifestos. Some try to live-stream their attacks until the social media systems take the content down.
- 17.2 % of DVEs use Facebook. This usage is significantly higher than other social media systems.
- 5.7% had Twitter and YouTube accounts.
- More individuals with radical right-wing ideologies use Facebook.
- More Islamic extremists (3.8%) use Twitter than radical-right extremists (1.8%).
- Instagram had the lowest use at 3%.
Social Media Algorithms
An algorithm is an artificial intelligence program that aims to keep the users of social media systems addicted to using the system. They call this “engagement.” These systems value usage over all other concerns because they derive revenues from advertisers based on system usage.
Addictive algorithms push people to harmful content automatically. False, misleading, and sensational content increases use. The algorithms are predatory and serve content related to what you previously reacted with using clickbait techniques. This self-reinforcing feedback loop may cause mental health problems for heavy social media users.
The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before the UK Parliament. She said that social media platforms, such as Facebook, which use opaque algorithms to spread harmful content, need more scrutiny and regulation. Without these controls, they may trigger increased violent events, such as the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Whatever tendencies a person has to participate in extremist violence, social media does little to reduce these factors. The social media algorithms, by their design, encourage more division, reinforce radical beliefs, bring attention to hate crimes, and support political polarization, which has already led to more extreme violence in America. Social media is not the only factor but plays a significant role in increasing extreme violence.