Twitter, Facebook and Co.
The Growing Problem of Online Radicalization
The raid on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has shown clearly just how dangerous online radicalization can be. By promoting hate and inciting violence, social media platforms represent a danger to democracy.
By Markus Becker, Patrick Beuth, Markus Böhm, Max Hoppenstedt, Janne Knödler, Guido Mingels, Mathieu von Rohr, Marcel Rosenbach und Hilmar Schmundt
When the right-wing nationalist and Trump follower Tim Gionet forced his way into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he brought his social network along with him. He was broadcasting live on the streaming platform DLive, popular in the gaming scene – and he even collected money from his supporters in real time from the in-app donation function. Gionet, who has become a well-known, right-wing internet agitator under the alias “Baked Alaska,” streamed for around 20 minutes, even trying to fire up his audience like a blowhard publicity hound. “We’ve got over 10,000 people live, watching. Let’s go!” he said. “Hit that follow button! I appreciate you guys.”
As Gionet and the rest of the mob pillaged their way through the halls of Congress, Gionet’s followers typed encouraging messages into the app’s chat channel – things like: “SMASH THE WINDOW,” and “HANG ALL THE CONGRESSMEN.” Indeed, it’s just like a live chat among gamers, which is what DLive is primarily used for. During the broadcast, his followers rewarded him with lemons, the currency used by the platform, which has become popular among right-wing extremists because it allows its users to do pretty much whatever they want.
Gionet is essentially a professional troll, one who has long since been banned from mainstream platforms like Twitter and YouTube. At one point during his broadcast, he said that the president would be “happy” about the rioters’ activities. “We’re fighting for Trump.”
The fact that the insurrectionists filmed their crimes in real time, thus presenting clear proof of their misdeeds to the authorities, isn’t just evidence of their limited intellectual capacities. It also demonstrates a certain loss of touch with reality among these self-proclaimed “patriots.” Nourished by QAnon conspiracy narratives, fantasies of election fraud and Trump’s unceasing stream of lies, they believed they were in the right and felt unassailable. As such, the events of Jan. 6 could also be seen as their arrival in a world where they don’t feel at all at home: The real one.
The fanatics on the front lines weren’t the only ones who had one foot in the virtual world throughout that Wednesday. Hundreds of people in the crowd of supporters outside filmed what they saw on their mobile phones, posted selfies on social networks, sent pictures to friends and liked the images posted by others. The world became witness to the intoxicating narcissism of a mass of people who are constantly online and searching obsessively for clicks and likes. Trump’s mob both inside and outside the Capitol were essentially an assault team made up of digital-world friends who had forgotten that they weren’t in a video game, but at the seat of Congress, a place where the glass actually does break and people actually do die when shots are fired.
European Commissioner Thierry Breton of France told the news website Politico that the storming of the Capitol was akin to a 9/11 moment for social media. Just as the attack on the Twin Towers in New York resulted in a paradigm shift of global security policies, Breton believes, the attack on the Capitol also represents a critical moment for the role played by digital platforms. Jan. 6, Breton makes clear, will go down as a day of infamy and could ultimately mark a turning point in the relationship between society at large and social media platforms.
Economist Scott Galloway, well-known as a critic of Silicon Valley and comfortable in the role of prophet of doom, believes the storming of the Capitol “may be the beginning of the end of Big Tech as we know it,” as he told Yahoo Finance on Tuesday. Does that, though, mean that we are about to see the disappearance of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which have completely changed and dominated the way their billions of users communicate over the last decade?
The allegations against social media are as old as the platforms themselves. Rarely, though, have we seen so clearly how the nonsense spread in these networks can spill over into reality. The world saw clearly how lies, violence and hate are freely spread and what misinformation echo chambers can produce. We saw what happens when algorithms – in their pursuit of clicks, reach and stickiness – determine how users see the world. And how successful those algorithms are in doing exactly what they are programmed for: creating a system in which the self-affirmation of its users continues to grow and magnify.