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On: Going Mainstream (How extremists are taking over)

July 4th, 2024
· 5 min read ·
Book
Society
Politics

Julia Ebner has been known to me since she appeared in an episode of the German late night show Neo Magazin Royale over 6 years ago. When I saw her new book “Going Mainstream” (the German version, which I read, is called “Massenradikalisierung” → mass radicalization) and skimmed through it, I knew I wanted to read it fully.

The main part of the book contains 6 chapters. Each one of them takes a look at one extremist group, that has gone mainstream in the past couple of years. Groups like incels, climate change deniers, or anti-vaxxers. Alongside each group, Ebner also introduces one tool they use to appeal to the masses. Tools like alternate media networks or provoking backslashes.

While these chapters were interesting to read and offered a glimpse into subcultures of today’s society, most of the topics discussed won’t be anything new to you, if you’ve read other things about these groups.

What I found fascinating, though, was the last chapter. In there, Ebner talks about what we, as a society, can do to “win” people back. Since I believe polarization and the rage-bating nature of Social Media is a huge problem of our times, it got me thinking about how I could help tackle this problem one day.

My learnings

But before we get there, here are my favorite facts/snippets from the book:

If a social movement can mobilize just 3.5% of society, it can influence the course of history in favor of its cause.

Gen Z is the most conservative generation since the end of WW2 (that one baffled me). Many of the members of Gen Z, who consume conservative content, come from liberal households. Conservatism is a tool for rebellion to them.

When Ebner joins an anti-vax demonstration and hears other conspiracy theories, she asks herself if we’ve entered the “digital Middle Ages”. I think that’s quite a good analogy.

Polarization is about identity and affiliation, not facts.

The fusion of the personal and collective identity within a group is a crucial factor for the willingness to use violence.

State-controlled media from Russia advertised the Covid-19 vaccine domestically, but spread negative rumors and fear on its international channels (English and German).

The “mainstreaming-process” of radical ideas presents itself as follows: They start as marginal subcultures → strong international networks are formed → alternative media outlets pop up → a public backlash against progressive ideas is promoted (this leads to a shift in the Overton-Window1) → radical ideas become accessible to the masses → “proxy culture wars” happen. This cycle is the key thesis of the book and really eye-opening in my opinion.

Theory and practice are complete opposites in these radical circles, i.e., they refer to their human rights (in theory) while massively curtailing those of others (in practice).

Possible solutions

A radicalization oftentimes starts, when a chain of unfortunate events happens. One expert says that we need better tools to analyze these global fears and problems in realtime to combat radicalization.

While authoritarian regimes often use censorship, liberal democracies have to focus on transparency and responsibility when it comes to media systems.

To make young people more resilient to radicalization, we need to operate on the intersection between psychology and media literacy. And they need to be exposed to people from other socio-economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds instead of learning about these concepts in theory.

For older generations (“digital migrants”), it’s important to highlight the similarities of current hate-narratives and historic examples.

Language manipulation and “claiming” terms is an often used tool by extremists to win over the masses. One example is the term «Critical Race Theory», that is misused very obviously in the US.

Fake news is like medicine: Preventing is better than curing. We can use “pre-bunks2” (the opposite of “debunks”) for this.

How could technology help in all of this? My personal conclusion.

While technology is obviously a key part in the extremists’ arsenal, it could also be a part of the solution. As you’ve read above, being able to monitor these networks and the general feelings in public discourse with the help of big data is and will be even more crucial in the future.

While I read this, it got me thinking that maybe, this would be an area I want to dive deeper into in the future. I’m going to university this fall to study computer science, and if I happen to choose to go into research one day, this would definitely be a field I’m interested in.

But I also thought, how could technology help younger people help gain more media literacy? This topic lies near and dear to my heart, as I’ve truly come to believe that the availability of Social Media and their algorithms do way more harm to a young individual’s brain than we can really grasp yet.

I hope we’ll see a trend reversal in that area in the foreseeable future. And maybe, I can play my tiny part in that, who knows.

Until then, read “Going Mainstream” if you’ve found this post even marginally interesting. It’s pretty good.

4/5

Finished: 04/07/2024

Footnotes

  1. The Overton window refers to the range of ideas and policies that are considered acceptable or mainstream within public discourse at any given time.

  2. https://firstdraftnews.org/articles/a-guide-to-prebunking-a-promising-way-to-inoculate-against-misinformation/

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