The internet is a strange and wonderful place, it is also a bizarre and disturbing place, and ultimately an angry and confrontational place. In spite of or because of this, the Internet also provides a platform for communities to develop over long distances that would otherwise not be able to develop. In light of recent in events in the USA, and the rising tide of dangerous political factions the world over, a brief look at the part the internet has to play might be pertinent.
Now, it is not news to anyone that the “alt-right” came to prominence through their online activities. However, places like www.stormfront.org; the self proclaimed “White Nationalist Community”, has existed long before the Alt-Right was a twinkle in Richard Spencer’s eye. Effectively, the dreams of the digital utopia put forwards by liberals at the dawn of the 21st century are well dead and buried beneath a blanket of swastika.jpeg images.
It is obvious to everyone that ideology is very much at play within these groups. They subscribe to a world view that defines white men as the alpha and omega of society through a fragmented biological discourse based entirely on bad, bad science (there is bad science which is flawed due to a weak methodology, then there is bad, bad science, that has an agenda present within it). You would hope that this bad, bad science would get challenged somewhere along the line, however, it does not until people are now confident enough in their beliefs to shout it from roof tops. How does this happen?
Now I am no expert, but there are two aspects of social psychology that could explain how people become so earnest of their beliefs that lack any supporting evidence: group think and group polarization. Put simply (he says dusting off a Social Psychology textbook unused since undergrad) these theories relate to the way groups come to form collective beliefs. Group think refers to the process where everyone in the group will eventually start believing the dominant ideas within that group; if these ideas remain unchallenged, there is no reason for members of the group to challenge themselves on their beliefs. Thus, these beliefs become further entrenched into the users psychological make up. Group polarization is the process whereby groups with radical belief systems become more radical if there is no check applied to their thought processes; effectively, if a group is ideologically opposed to another group, they will further distances themselves from that group, and in the process potentially end at a more radical worldview. These twin processes explain how dangerous groups exist and thrive on the Internet.
One of the wonderful things about the internet is that everything is on it. All the porn you could shake, err… something at, all the news, and all the weird little musings of people who have an axe to grind for whatever reason they have an axe to grind. But, this is also the problem; firstly, no one needs that much porn, secondly, the internet gives rise to some potentially dangerous forms of expression that remain unhinged. The reason they remain unhinged is due to the group think process that happens. People with these ideas will use the internet to develop their community that acts as a kind of safe haven for their ideas. For instance, Stormfront as the “White Nationalist Community” will never have their racism challenged within that site the same way they would almost anywhere else (I hope). People might join this group as curious malcontents, but due to group think, they will come out of it as bona fide white nationalists. Group polarization will then lead to increased radicalization as the group continues to define itself against other ideas, real or imagined, that exist in society.
Although this is a very extreme example to be using in a brief rant, it highlights how group think and group polarization work on the Internet. The Internet, for all the digital utopian dreams about free access to information and the democratization of knowledge, is just a tool. As with any tool, it depends entirely how it is used. In the instance of groups like the Alt-Right and Stormfront, it is a tool used to reaffirm already existing prejudices that already exist in the users mind.