The Social Epistemology of Right-Wing Extremism

by Dan Barron, March 2018.

During the ultimately tragic melee that was the Charlottesville monument protest, one of the protestors attempted a remarkable metamorphosis. Separated from his fellow white supremacists, and pursued by counterprotestors, he takes off his white polo “uniform” and announces “I’m not really white power, man – I just came here for the fun.” While we should doubt the sincerity of such a disavowal made under threat of violence, his words also speak to the current moment in politics.

The “fun” that the protestor found in white supremacism and neo-fascism would likely have its genesis in his online life. On the anonymized forums that are the alt-right’s primordial ooze, provocation and induced controversy are valued as the apex of humour. The internet and its consequent revolution in communication provide a perfect arena for this kind of “fun”.  Online, without the wider context that accompanies in-person communication, the sincerity of a message becomes incredibly difficult to determine. Furthermore, on fully anonymized forums such as 4chan, sincerity is extinguished at its most basic conceptual level. Someone posting that “Hitler did nothing wrong” could be joking, entirely serious, or some combination of the two; but in such forum where the text is stripped of all context, its sincerity or otherwise becomes so inscrutable as to render the concept virtually meaningless.

Furthermore, sincerity no longer matters due to the rise of a technology-centred relativism. The internet’s rise to becoming an all-encompassing feature of life in the Global North has given a particular vitality to this relativist tendency. Online denizens occupy an opinion-attention economy, in which the desired good is attention, and the only unit of currency by which to gain attention is a radical or strongly-worded opinion. And there are just so many opinions that it’s easy to become jaded, and give up on the idea of any being genuinely correct. This fatigue, when combined with the mechanics of social media services, also encourages the formation of “filter bubbles”, where an individual is almost exclusively exposed to opinions similar to their own.

In the opinion-attention economy of virtual life, humour and outrage are the emotions that most effectively draw attention. The dearth of the usual context has the effect of blurring or flattening the landscape, rendering only the bright, bold tones of laughter and anger discernable. The kind of “fun” that attracted the above protestor to Charlottesville strikes both targets: ordinary people find overt white supremacism highly offensive, and to the protestor such apoplexy constitutes a source of mirth. Nestled within online communities where anonymity provides freedom from repercussions, espousing such beliefs might just appear as “fun”, akin to a more extreme version of confrontational and inflammatory stand-up comedy. However, the line between “funny” and “serious” is a mercurial one, and what one finds humorous can often lead to more concerted preoccupation with the underlying ideas. Inside the anonymized chambers, what might begin as playful needling of political sacred cows comes to echo more and more with an appearance of serious truth. “Hitler did nothing wrong” initially may only be funny to some due to being outrageously inflammatory and false, but gradually the sentiment is co-opted and given credence by actors of indeterminate insincerity. Inside the pressure-cooker of the opinion-attention economy, what is increasingly perceived as a kernel of truth inside the joke eventually bursts forth.

How can society move to overcome this tendency toward online extremism, and return to valuing sober and even-handed reflection over sardonic acrimony and vitriol? While this is only the beginning of the answer, I believe that understanding one’s online life as explicitly part of a collective rather than as purely individualistic expression is a valuable move. Unlike the vast majority of situations encountered in real life, online communities are mobs, and thus exhibit a mob mentality. It is by this collective nature that humorous remarks coalesce into serious positions. If attention continues to be the primary individual good, then trying to scream above the cries of the mob will always encourage inflammatory and controversial opinion.

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2 thoughts on “The Social Epistemology of Right-Wing Extremism”

  1. I think it’s worth digging a little deeper into the structuring of online communities to figure out the reason and cause for this rather than simply denouncing “technology-centred relativism”. I think that the reason the internet has allowed such a movement to the fringe in recent years is a combination of consumer surrounding news information which predates the internet and the democratization of information on a scale which was not imaginable prior to the internet.

    The internet has deeply blurred the line between opinion maker and consumer; people who previously simply consumed information are now able to interact with major sources and create their own outlets in a way not previously possible. Contrary to ‘common wisdom’ now, I think it’s worth remembering that a decade or so ago, people were still very excited about this and that it has allowed a lot of previously marginalized voices to be heard and talent to be discovered which would not have been tried by old media. The other side of this however is that without any filter at all in terms of what media gets out there, there’s a massive over-saturation which does assist those who grab attention best.

    My concern however is that all too often, these complaints are accompanied by a sort of implicit nostalgia for traditional news sources. While the digital age has had many radical negatives which have particularly come to light under Trump, it’s worth remembering that this democratization of information has also been used to organize protests and disrupt information hegemonies on a scale not previously possible. Reliance on Old Media gatekeepers has failed us in the past (particularly in the run up to the Iraq war in recent memory) and the failures of today are no reason to return to that era.

    The serious question then is how do we preserve the democratization of information without falling into the dual traps of a tyranny of radical opinion makers who grab disproportionate attention without substance or a balkanization of society as we fall into our own respective information tribes and shun or argue with those who reject them.

    I think some improvements could be made by redesigning algorithms in some ways to aim at a better compromise between gatekeeper and free information, but this is at best a first step. I think the internet has radically changed things in a way which our culture is still catching up to even three decades later and I can only hope that things equalize soon.

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