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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Op-ed: Social media: Contending with extremism and misinformation in the digital age

Social media has revolutionized terrorism, acting as a tool to streamline communication in underground networks and make the recruitment of individuals more accessible. This has resulted in the increased dissemination of extremist content online, facilitating radicalization. Terrorist or extremist groups can readily communicate their opinions and misinformation in an immediate and widely accessible format, sharing information with a large, global audience, while also tailoring their messages to specific audiences at local levels. As stated by expert Dr. Maura Conway, “Today's Internet does not simply allow for the dissemination and consumption of ‘extremist material’ in a one-way broadcast from producer to consumer, but also high levels of online social interaction around this material.”

Large terrorist organizations such as ISIS have used social media to encourage individuals to join their campaigns in Syria and Iraq, taking advantage of a variety of platforms and formats to extend their impact. They utilize platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to spread misinformation and extremism, often employing various tactics like blurring logos, video content and unusual punctuation to evade anti-terrorism detection within these platforms. They have been able to form teams of social media users who retweet or share propaganda to garner the attention of potential recruits and direct them to more private conversation sites. ISIS’s social media strategy demonstrates the dangers of social media and the potential it has to fuel extremist thought and mobilize violence, with estimates that they recruited 40,000 people from 110 countries through their online campaigns as of 2018.

Within the United States, private blogs such as Infowars and Roosh V’s Return of Kings provide information and news for far-right extremism, such as for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol or anti-vaccination campaigns. Deep-web social networking sites such as 4chan and 8chan allow like-minded people to share messages and media related to extremist content and orchestrate terrorist acts. This has created an extensive and ever-expanding online community where terrorist groups depend on social media for the support of their organizations and recruitment of new members. 

Social media has even become a weapon which people in power use to blast disinformation into walled echo chambers to incite others to violence. Through Facebook troll accounts, the Myanmar military — backed by Buddhist nationalist groups — has disseminated anti-Muslim posts, false news and misleading photos as justification for their massacre of Rohingya minorities. The Myanmar military learned its tactics from the Russian government, which had divided communities across the U.S. through divisive ads, Facebook pages and fake accounts, to influence the outcomes of the 2016 election. Former President Donald Trump carried out his authoritarian neighbors’ tactics in December 2020, tweeting, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild” and “StopTheSteal.” The pro-Trump groups Oath Keepers and Proud Boys responded to his call, mobilizing by storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, leaving five people dead in their wake. Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the global disinformation wars waged across borders.

Disinformation warfare is accompanied by ‘plagues of misinformation.’ Misinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines has spread like the virus itself, leading the World Health Organization and other U.N. organizations to call on member states to combat the “COVID-19 infodemic.” According to the WHO joint statement, misinformation has cost lives and helped unravel COVID-19 prevention policies, allowing the virus to continue its rampage. 

Other devastating plagues are cyberharassment and cyberbullying, which involve online harassers using photos, texts, recordings and videos to inject frustration, sadness, low self-esteem and anger into victims. Many victims have spiraled into substance use, school difficulties or suicidal thoughts and have even become aggressors themselves, incubating hate to spread like a pandemic. 

As global access to the internet rapidly increases, social media continues to revolutionize our communication and provide us with tools to interact with people around the world. The borderless flow of information that social media grants us, however, can easily threaten our safety. In fact, we have seen how the line between online safety and personal safety has been blurred with the role that digital communication plays in developing radical ideologies and inciting people to violence. It is important to recognize the digital threats we all face and assess how certain platforms may be exploited in the future and play a role in radicalization and recruitment. 

We must focus on proactive prevention strategies that governments and online platform providers can adopt to mitigate this issue. Young people are particularly susceptible to extremist propaganda and can easily be coerced into joining organizations to feel a sense of community. Governments should support digital literacy programs through state schools and local and national youth and community organizations to inform minors about the risks of social media and how to recognize propaganda. Beyond this, they can collaborate with social media organizations to ensure that the private tech sector is playing their part in protecting their users from potentially dangerous content. Governments must promote the effective enforcement of applicable laws that prohibit the dissemination of terrorist or violent extremist content, even when the material is online, consistent with the laws of their nation and human rights law. 

However, the main ethical dilemma related to promoting increased governmental regulation is that social media providers are inherently concerned with freedom of expression. These platforms are designed to be a place where people can freely share their ideas, as the internet is designed to be a limitless platform that promotes open communication. We shouldn’t limit the ability of these sites to provide civil and political rights. At the same time, the identification and classification of published content as extremist should remain an important pillar of these sites’ goals to guarantee the safety of their users. The question remains: What constitutes necessary restrictions on social media that also serve to foster the platforms’ purpose of providing robust dialogue and free communication? 

This issue, among others, will be discussed at the 2022 Norris and Margery Bendetson Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship International Symposium on Problems Without Passports, March 31-April 2, 2022. The international symposium, designed by a colloquium of students taking the EPIIC course through Tufts, features international practitioners, academics, public intellectuals, activists and journalists who participate in panels and breakout room discussions. Junior Janya Gambhir, an author of this op-ed, will moderate the first panel of the symposium, which is titled “Social Media: Contending with Extremism and Misinformation in the Digital Age.”