Community, Gab, and Radicalization

When discussing the the “Jailbait” subreddit, Tufecki wrote that “these men found a community, acceptance and a means of bolstering their reputation.” Tufecki argues that the internet allowed this group to take something that once would have been extremely taboo, that is the distribution of child pornography, and make it something that was acceptable within the community. What effects how these changes occur are based predominantly on two things: 1) the ability to build a reputation; and 2) the connection to a user’s real name.

While I was reading Twitter and Teargas, I felt compelled to think about the recent Pittsburgh shooting, and the role social media played in it. Following Richard Bowers’ attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, investigators found that he posted a great deal of anti-Semitic messages on the site Gab. Gab was a haven for those who were kicked out of other sites. Famous Gab residents were Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter for leading a hate campaign against Leslie Jones; Andrew Anglin, neo-nazi founder of Daily Stormer; and Richard Spencer, the guy featured prominently in “punch a nazi” memes. Rolling Stone called the move to Gab a “mass-migration” of extremists (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/how-twitters-alt-right-purge-fell-short-196449/).  When you attempt to sign up for an account, you are told that “Gab defends individual liberty, free expression, and the free flow of information. All are welcome to join and speak freely.” Richard Bowers, and all his anti-Semitic hatred, found a home on Gab.

Under Tufecki’s classification system, Gab would exist at the intersection of reputation building and anonymity. Users can post under pseudonyms, and can upvote and downvote any material that is posted. This is similar to how Reddit and Twitter operate. Tufecki notes that sites which remain anonymous lead to increased harassment and more willingness to violate social norms. The latter can be good or bad. Reputation building allows individuals to feel more confident in their beliefs, as they have a community supporting them. Gab seems ripe for a situation similar to the “Jailbait” subreddit, as both are groups with abhorrent stances, that are just continually patting themselves on the back about those stances. I worry that Gab’s, and other similar networks, continued existence leads to a rise in incidents similar to the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Part of my worry stems from research done on the “incel,” or “involuntary celibate” hate group. Incels are a misogynist online community composed mostly of white, heterosexual, men who unite under a banner of entitlement to sex and hatred of people who are having sex. Incel groups grew up as subreddits, largely free from any type of scrutiny. Tufecki talks about the change in Reddit’s policy which ultimately brought the incel subreddit down in 2017. One of the most shocking things about the community was their hero-worship for Elliot Rodgers, a boy who committed seven murders in 2014, motivated by his incel beliefs. The community uses “Supreme Gentleman” to refer to Rodgers. The phrase “Going ER” has been adopted by the community to describe similar attacks that have happened since. Notable examples are the Parkland shooting, the Toronto van attack, and the yoga studio shooting. Researchers specializing in online radicalization have noted that “these kinds of forums can be dangerous and push people into violence.”

Tufecki, quoting Melvin Kranzberg, writes that “technology is neither good, nor bad, nor is it neutral.” I am curious as to how social networks effect the process by which people become radicalized. The UN put out a call for research in the area, as current research is incredibly sparse. Tufecki believes that social networking sped up the organizing process, and changed how we should think about protests. What does this tells us about communities with negative intentions?

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2 Responses to Community, Gab, and Radicalization

  1. jenansbach says:

    Brandon, I found this all too upsetting to spend more time thinking about. That technology is neutral seems like a red herring–because yes, there is no moral quantification in the hardware. However, if we understand technology as the way technology is deployed and employed, if we consider that platforms are made of decisions by people who are replicating (and, I would argue, concentrating and expanding) their own bias, then technology is NOT neutral. The pencil is neutral, but we are beyond the simple machine of a pencil at this point. Twitter started as being a fun place (I forgot my sign in for my original account in 2008, but once I made a new profile in 2009, I’ve stuck with it) where you would chat with people and make decisions on whether to make the conversation mutual. A random post by a single woman living in the UK in 2009 led us to further conversations. I’ve watched the progression of photos in her life through meeting and marrying her husband, her pregnancy, her maternity leave…. It was a great way to think about the daily lives of people who live in places you may never visit. There we also a lot of pictures of food (Insta has taken that over, I hear) (I’m terrible at Instagram).

    But over time, the decisions Jack and Co. at Twitter have made have made the platform one that is far from neutral. Yesterday, I participated in reporting two accounts, both terrifying: one was spewing Holocaust denier propaganda and attacking Jews and using hate speech and encouraging violence against them. It was brought to my attention when someone I follow posted a tweet that tagged @Jack and said he was leaving because that account was rapidly gaining many, many followers who were retweeting and sharing (so not just monitoring) and he couldn’t stay in a space where that was allowed–many people had reported the account, but nothing had been done, which goes back to Tufekci’s point about the self-policing model embraced by Silicon Valley of having minimal staff and putting the onus on users, but we are far beyond that when many users DO report these accounts to no avail.

    The second case I was involved in yesterday was far more chilling: an account was posting names, photos, profiles of Jewish professors, writers, artists with descriptions of how they were supporting Jewish causes or information, with a clear signal to people that these were being identified as targets. It was terrifying to think that we’ve gone from small groups on subreddits to vast platforms on Twitter–the reach of that technology, the affordances–allow a search for a keyword that requires a lot less sleuthing than finding a subreddit community. These are not exclusive platforms, either–people can be radicalized and nurtured in those subreddit communities where their views are upheld, and then as Fields explained, go to Twitter to have those ideas and ideologies performed and reinforced.

    I use Twitter to stay connected to overlapping (and sometimes I’m the only overlap) circles of people and sources of information. I use Tweetdeck and have certain accounts that I prioritize in a separate feed so if I’m pressed for time, I can always check that to find out important stuff (there are no news or information accounts in that feed–just friends) like events in people lives or what they are thinking about or upcoming activities I may want to be involved in. I see photos of the things they care about. It’s a nice space. And then I have the rest of my Twitter in my main feed, which I can attend to or ignore. But I was online for all of Arab Spring, the Turkish events, Egypt… and I can’t give up Twitter because of the affordances–that there are people like Tufekci that are using this platform to share important information that the filtered news doesn’t always give.

    (Because it was too much work to be clever, my Twitter account is also @JenAnsbach–it’s a public feed so anyone can see what my dog–dogS–are doing)

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  2. Alex Miller says:

    “I am curious as to how social networks effect the process by which people become radicalized.”
    I also found this very interesting as I read your post. It would not surprise me if groups with negative intentions have many of the same strengths and weaknesses as groups organizing for activism through social media. Many of them probably are able to organize much faster than previously, but due to that quickness do not have the same infrastructure attached to their movement as a movement built slowly, such as the Civil Rights Movement. Social media and use of social media is not neutral, but then that makes me wonder does it fall more closely on the negative or positive side of activism and movements?

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