A new study indicated that patterns of radicalization in the United States are consistent with a “contagion effect.” In the words of the study’s summary, “Extremist ideologies behave like complex contagions that require multiple exposures for adoption.”
The study, by Mason Youngblood, was published in Nature Research, a multidisciplinary science journal that has been around since 1869 and publishes peer-reviewed research that includes looking at societal challenges.
Youngblood’s work models data from over 416 Far-Right extremists in the United States between 2005 through 2017. His results show that Far-Right radicalization patterns are consistent with “a complex contagion process, in which reinforcement is required for transmission.”
My new study on far-right extremism is out today in @HSScomms! I found that patterns of radicalization in the US between 2005 and 2017 are consistent with a contagion effect that relies on online and offline organizing rather than copy-cats: https://t.co/QeYwz0Z4j1
— Mason Youngblood (@MasYoungblood) July 31, 2020
The study factors in variables such as social media, group membership, online/physical recruitment, demographics and economic factors. I would propose another variable be added: media.
Media narratives, particularly those that are driven by political agendas and/or are uninformed (and disinterested in being informed), have demonstrated a coverage pattern that fits in with the complex contagion theory.
Recycled and untested narratives that highlight (if not glamorize or romanticize extremism) are no less part of the reinforcement equation than any other variable. As advertising industries know, adoption requires repeat exposure.
Think back, for example, to the bizarre Rolling Stone cover featuring Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The concept of glamorizing extremism is not new; both the entertainment and (arguably) news media have exhibited a pattern of leaning toward the narrative of extremes without equal weight given toward transformative counter-narratives that could challenge these ideologies of hate.
In the seven years since that Rolling Stone cover, the landscape of extremism has gotten far more complex. As former neo-Nazi Frank Meeink notes, extremists aren’t just meeting in the back room of a dive joint. Neo-Nazis — along with every other variety of extremists — are openly sharing their ideas, recruiting and engaging (violently, in many cases).
The streets of 2020 are witness to that.
Just recently, for example, another shooting occurred, this time in Denver at a “Patriot Rally” where an armed security guard working on behalf of NBC 9News shot and killed a protester.
Aside from media influencers jumping on the story with inaccurate information (left uncorrected for their millions of followers), the real story adds yet another layer of entanglement between the media and our current culture of violent extremes.
— Shireen Qudosi (@ShireenQudosi) October 11, 2020
Long-time civil rights activist Jeffrey Imm explains how, in this case, the media on scene wasn’t there to just report — they took part.
“The Denver shooting yesterday is going to be another significant fracture in public trust. Denver’s NBC 9News had a producer at a Denver Communist-sponsored event who allegedly was doing ‘undercover’ reporting. They assigned a Pinkerton security person, Matt Doloff, who was in argument with some ‘Patriot Group’ protester, which ended up in apparent shoving. The ‘Patriot Group’ protester ended up spraying mace and the NBC 9News security contractor Doloff shot and killed him. He’s been charged with homicide. This is really bad news.
“The political activism and division between mainstream media and various partisan groups already has been charged. There are now those claiming NBC ‘murdered’ one of their ‘protesters.’ This is going to give a lot of fuel to extremists. The investigation is ongoing. I don’t recall a media outlet at a protest having a security person arrested for homicide – EVER. That is far from normal.
I think it is dangerous for journalists and human rights of free press to just ‘ignore’ this and hope it will go away. Consider. If this were a FOX News TV channel, and their security was arrested for homicide in killing a Left-wing (or any) protester, this would be global news. Because it is. The idea that the ‘Left’ (eye roll) media think they can just sweep this under the narrative is a big mistake. For extremists looking for an excuse to attack the media, this is going to give them ‘rationalization.’ This is why it is so important to spread a message of nonviolence today. We have gasoline all over the place, and people lighting matches.”
The Denver incident was shadowed by another case of the media not getting it right. This weekend, CBS News reported that the Taliban announced their support of President Trump’s reelection bid — a bid the campaign has fully rejected.
The Taliban on Trump: “We hope he will win the election” and withdraw U.S. troops https://t.co/f85Z62brK9
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 10, 2020
The Taliban quickly responded to the CBS report by publishing a “clarification.” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid shared on Twitter that CBS had misrepresented his words:
— Zabihullah (..ذبـــــیح الله م ) (@Zabehulah_M33) October 11, 2020
Meanwhile, CBS had already reported that in a phone interview, Mujahid shared,
“We hope he [Trump] will win the election and wind up U.S. military presence in Afghanistan … When we heard about Trump being COVID-19, we got worried for his health, but seems he is getting better … Trump might be ridiculous for the rest of the world, but he is sane and wise man for the Taliban” – Zabihullah Mujahid, Senior Taliban Official
CBS News also reported that another senior member of the Taliban praised President Trump for his honesty and thought highly of President Trump’s “America first” creed:
“It is the slogan of Trump from the start that they are not cops for the world and don’t want a single flag and anthem for the globe, but their priority is America.” – Zabihullah Mujahid, Senior Taliban Official
CBS has since corrected their report, which was given to the news group by another senior Taliban leader. Despite the confusion being ironed out, the initial story had already caught traction as a trending story.
As a “complex contagion,” it’s another case of violent extremists given center stage at a critical junction point. The trigger finger to cover the story, headline, the clicks, likes and retweets become more important than the facts and the integrity with which the story (or the blunder) is treated.
In his study, Youngblood proposes:
“Future research should investigate how specific intervention, such as online counter-narratives to battle propaganda, may be effectively implemented to mitigate the spread of far-right extremism in the United States.”
I would add that future investigations also consider the role of the media and influencer agitation and disinformation campaigns as they impact narratives that can lead to radicalization.
These narratives are particularly volatile and dangerously reinforced by our hyper-polarized political environment. Ultimately, they are succor of fringe groups across the board seeking to spark what they view as the climactic “War of Extremes” to bring down society as we know it.
The form, agency and role of media has been dramatically reshaped since the advent of digital communications and social media. It’s also been altered by the gutting of traditional, local journalism in favor of national media conglomerates that shown themselves to be less interested in objective reporting and more driven by clicks, ad revenue prospects and political agendas.
In previous times, we might have seen one extremist group pitted against another; now, we have a third player in the game. While news organizations are, of course, not extremist ideologues, they are fast-becoming part of the complex “contagion process” that drives radicalization narratives out of the fringes of society to a place front and center.