Social media continues to have an increasingly influential role in the state of global affairs as platforms can be easily manipulated to be a tool to propagate political violence. The use of social media as a mechanism for inciting and intensifying political violence is demonstrated in Facebook’s primary role in spreading unregulated, hateful propaganda targeting the Rohingya minority group and ultimately causing genocide. The influence of social media in fostering political violence is also exemplified by right-wing extremists’ reliance on social media platforms to plan and execute the insurrection on January 6th. The utilization of social media to coordinate and execute such violence also increases already existing polarization, intensifies political ideologies, and magnifies the echo chamber effect allowing for the spread of dangerous misinformation or extremely biased content based on user interaction.
In this age of rapid technological innovation, social media continues to play an increasingly prominent role in daily life. It is essential to recognize the negative implications this level of interconnectedness poses, as demonstrated in its ability to provide a platform for people with the intent to do harm to come together and organize. It is important to consider the manner in which social media operates in intensifying dangerous ideologies and the impact that this can have on specific minority groups as well as society as a whole. Additionally, the role that increased polarization plays in propagating political violence and the service that social media performs in executing this violence. Platforms incorporate algorithms to show viewers content that they are likely to engage positively with and want to see, leading to the heavy circulation of political ideas that only align with the position of the viewer to be shown. As a result, connections between like-minded individuals are created allowing for intensifying of beliefs as radical ideas further develop through this echo chamber of political tunnel vision.
Social media is also extremely influential in shaping viewers’ political beliefs and perceptions of situations. Unmonitored targeted and harmful content, as well as misinformation, can spread quickly creating ill-informed citizens with dangerous consequences of potentially inciting anger or violent action. The interconnected nature of social media allows it to play a prominent role in furthering radical and extremist ideas as it increases polarization and serves as a medium for members to organize without detection, functioning as a tool for political violence that has detrimental impacts.
Understanding the functioning of social media as a tool for political violence is extremely important as it plays a crucial role in radicalizing extremist groups, inciting violence, and will continue to pose dangers to society if left undetected. Short-term causes of political violence in relation to social media can be anger and dissatisfaction with current governmental structures or policies, as well as strong hateful or discriminatory ideologies that could lead to violence. The bigger implications of this issue are the drastic reach it has and the number of people that could be affected as a result. The internet and social media connect the entire world, allowing for unprecedented numbers of people to connect and organize. This serves as an opportunity for terrorist organizations, corrupt governments, and extremist groups to manipulate platforms to create echo chambers of information, organize, and execute violence.
At the current rate of globalization and the prominent position of social media in society, this issue will grow in intensity and scope over time. If left unchecked, social media will continue to connect dangerous extremists with one another and serve as a foundation for the planning and execution of more political violence. It is imperative that the use of social media as a tool for political violence be effectively analyzed in order to understand how it can be used by extremist and terrorist organizations as well as to raise awareness of the dangers social media can pose. Understanding the nuances of this issue demonstrates how easily platforms commonly used for entertainment and talking to family and friends can be manipulated to spread hate towards minority groups, organize riots, plan genocides, and other atrocities.
Social media breaks down the barriers of distance for the rapid exchange of ideas regardless of geographic location, allowing extremists to exploit the resource to become the foundation of their ability to connect and coordinate. In the case of the Rohingya genocide, head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher explained how “clear and deliberate attempts to covertly spread propaganda” using Facebook was directly linked to the Myanmar military and propagating violence against the Rohingya population. The United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar also found in its 2018 report that for most users in Myanmar, “Facebook is the internet,” revealing the prevalent role that social media plays in society and how many people were exposed to the harmful language and propaganda being spread in Myanmar. This systematic campaign flooded Facebook the Myanmar military and exploited the vast reach of the social media platform with dangerous and graphic anti-Rohingya propaganda inciting the murders and rapes of the Rohingya people as well as causing the largest forced human migration in recent history. After months of the dangerous rhetoric going unmonitored, Facebook finally acknowledged that it had not responded to the threats in a time-efficient manner. It is
essential to note that by this point, the social media campaign had already led to over 700,000 Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar in a year in what the United Nations referred to as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The violence in Myanmar at the hands of the manipulation of social media operated to intensify dangerous ideologies, incite anger and cause the loss of life.
While social media serves as a mechanism for rapidly spreading information, it also has the potential to spread misinformation just as quickly, consequently fueling political violence. The dangers of misinformation through social media and its translation into political violence have been exemplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A study focused on the far right illustrated the way COVID-19 was misconstrued on social media platforms and reported that between January and April 2020, 34 unreliable websites that are known to host misinformation received 80 million interactions on Facebook, where Facebook posts linked to the World Health Organization website received just 6.2 million interactions. Misinformation regarding health statistics, vaccine safety, and the spread of the virus can be directly tied to violent protests across the United States against mask requirements, the development of vaccines, and the existence of the disease. Extreme right-wing terrorist groups have worked to appeal to anxieties and grievances regarding the pandemic and used conspiracy theories on social media to advance their narratives, connect with other groups, and recruit individuals to incite violence.
Gathering on social media platforms such as Telegram played a significant role in planning and executing the insurrection on January 6th by right-wing extremists. The extremist group’s calls for a revolt against the United States government months on social media came following anger and resentment surrounding the Presidential election in November. Platforms like Telegram were utilized to send private messages, organize, recruit followers, and plan actions such as the events of January 6th.
Increased polarization works to propagate political violence and social media serves as a tool for amplifying this polarization, and in turn, political violence. The United Nations has warned that right-wing terror groups have used the health crisis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to radicalize and recruit online and that a 750% increase in anti-Semitic tweets has been reported since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as a significant increase in crimes against people of Asian descent.
The spreading of hate speech on social media to propagate violence is also seen in the case of Myanmar as rhetoric explicitly calling for a genocide of the Rohingya people was spread via Facebook where it was able to quickly gain support and exposure to millions of viewers. Appalling posts encouraging people in Myanmar to fight the Rohingya people the “way Hitler did the Jews” and using racial slurs for the minority population were all over Facebook. This spread of this violent and harmful language incited fear in the Rohingya population and violence and genocide in the region.
Another dangerous piece to social media in its influence in creating political violence is the ability for extremists to easily avoid detection on mainstream sites as well as move to less popular platforms where they can continue to communicate and coordinate. Details of the propaganda occurring against the Rohingya went undetected as fake names and accounts were used to continue spreading the information. Facebook even admitted to the role that the platform had in being “used to foment division and incite offline violence,” demonstrating how easily dangerous propaganda went unmonitored and the consequences that can ensue as a result. In the cases when mainstream social media outlets do block and flag dangerous messages, right-wing extremists often move to platforms such as Parlor to continue communicating. With these platforms being promoted by conservative political leaders such as US Representative Devin Nunes and Fox News host Sean Hannity, a bridge between those on the non-violent far right and far-right extremists is created making the group increasingly dangerous. Following the November election, people who had “never seen content by the Proud Boys, QAnon,” and other anti-government groups were exposed to the content in the public channels on sites such as Telegram. Conservative and Trump supporters embraced some of this new content because “it offered an alternative reality they preferred,” demonstrating the dangers of the echo-chamber effect on social media and the role platforms play in magnifying polarization.
Social media’s operations as a tool to propagate political violence can be refuted by the coordination of violence and genocide for thousands of years prior to the development and widespread use of social media. While there is validity to the argument that political violence can occur without social media, it is irrefutable that the speed and outreach of propaganda is magnified by the use of social media as it serves as a catalyst for these dangerous ideologies and connects extremist groups and individuals to further radicalize.
It is also important to note that while social media can be used to spread hateful propaganda, it can also be used to coordinate widespread humanitarian initiatives, raise awareness of important issues, and receive donations for those in need. Its ability to spread news rapidly does not always have a negative impact as it can allow minority groups to raise awareness and collect funds for important campaigns such as raising money for the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and spreading resources regarding the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. While social media can be used in a positive manner and benefit humanitarian organizations, that also does not eliminate the dangerous rhetoric and organization that can be occurring behind the scenes on the same social media platforms.
Social media and its role as a tool for political violence heavily impact minority groups, for example, the Rohingya population in Myanmar and other Islamic groups that have been targeted. However, this issue truly impacts everyone as it poses significant safety concerns as demonstrated by the actions of January 6th in which the US Capitol security, police, and representatives were put in danger due to the violence of the far-right extremist group.
Public outcry for more severe protocols to be implemented into social media platforms to flag violent or inappropriate content and to ensure it does not serve as a medium to allow extremists to gather and exchange information. Facebook in particular has been under fire for not acknowledging these calls for policy changes. Zuckerberg stood by his decision in the events of the January 6th riot to not take down Trump’s posts, arguing that they were within the bounds of the platform and despite predicting violence, they did not necessarily incite it so they should stand as published. However, he did explain that if civil unrest and domestic political tensions continue for a prolonged period, he may suggest different policies for the United States in regard to the censorship of content and Trump’s posts specifically. This possible openness to implementing change suggests the potential for a more comprehensive safety and security framework on social media sites such as Facebook in moderating media during a period of heightened political unrest and violence globally.