Digital Media and Nuance

The time I spent on Facebook was mainly used to look at recipe GIFS and memes. The Facebook algorithm however infered I was very fond of Thierry Baudet and his political party Forum voor Democratie. Every day his face would pop up on my wall, accompanied by short clip of his most recent school visit or presentation in the parliamentary room.

Sometimes I watched those clips. Afterwards, I’d take a look at the comment section. The comments were, in some cases, nothing but extremely worrisome. Some were pleas to exterminate all not-native Dutch inhabitants (this statement is only a little hyperbolic), others mainly stressed the unreliability and corruptness of the Dutch government. Racism, discrimination and exclusion prevailed. Nuance or objective comments were almost unfindable.

Facebook is not the only source for these kinds of comments.
I’ve spent my fair time on Reddit (and still do). This platform is an immense collection of subgroups you can join which together create a timeline for you, in addition to the popular timeline based on global feedback. Many of these subgroups have friendly, fair, nuanced discussions, but some groups are built upon discriminative values shared among its members. An example is TheRedPill: a group who openly enunciates misogyny and spreads hate towards men who show ‘weaknesses’: showing emotions or having respect for women. The comment section does not show several points of view and evidence for the claims made, but mainly contains messages of those agreeing with the statement and strengthening their fellow participants’ opinions.

These two examples made me wonder. Would these people have shared their thoughts if they hadn’t found these platforms? Would user xxxHelloxxx tell his mother that women are put on this earth to please men as they wish? Did these platforms strengthen these dissident thoughts or were these platforms maybe even the origin of their behavior?  

Intuitively, I’d say these platforms played a major role in developing, prompting and spreading such ideas. People constantly look for confirmation and signs that we fit in. Being different or having different beliefs makes you ‘at risk’: you could be left out. For those having ideas that might not be popular (this does not have to be as extreme or negative as these previous examples might suggest), finding a culture with like-minded people would be extremely appealing.

The World Wide Web makes that a whole lot easier. Search engines, social media or websites easily direct you to your small subcommunity where your thoughts can be discussed. Here, many/some/one (anonymous) user might confirm your stream of ideas and put your mind at ease: ‘you are not crazy or different. You are just like us.’

This phenomenon opens doors to a whole new level of self-appreciation and acceptance. Take for example the LGBTQ-community: these minorities can find each other and discuss their problems and solutions, can accommodate one another, provide help, etc. These contacts could moreover extend to real-life connections and relationships.

But this has a negative side as well: it opens doors to extremism in all forms. Those who have the craziest, most dangerous ideas might find people who agree with them just a mouse click away. The two examples given at the beginning of this blog are just mellow examples of hateful content spread by digital platforms, but other (more worrisome) things come to mind as well: Jihad militants, AltRight, etc.

In my next couple of blog posts, I want to dig into that. Every blog post will be a brief introduction to a different aspect of this extremism-digital media relationship.

Do you think digital media has a profound effect on the distribution of dissident ideas? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Do you have any aspects of this topic you’d want me to cover?