On Jan. 6, we all watched in horror as a pro-Trump mob stormed the United States Capitol building. While the insurrectionists smashed windows, looted the Capitol building, and chanted for the death of people like Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence, the question was asked by hundreds and thousands across the nation, “how did this happen?” Although it can be seen as the result of many problems building up across the country, one cause stands out in particular.
While many believe that most of the people at these riots had to be part of far right groups, according to a study by the University of Chicago, only one-tenth of Capitol arrestees were part of gangs, militias or militia like groups, such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers. Those with no affiliation to any particular group amounted to 89%. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, makes an important point: “They might dine from the same buffet table of extremism,” but “you don’t have to be a member of the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers to belong to the same overall subculture or to adhere to certain conspiracies.” How did these ordinary, everyday people who were considered the “normal” Trump supporters become so radicalized that they swarmed the Capitol building?
The alt-right thrives on the internet. A journal from the King’s College of London claims, “Without social media, the alt-right would not exist.” The extreme racist, sexist and xenophobic ideas of the alt-right are not accepted in public. So, much of the alt-right ideas are propagated entirely online. Social media algorithms, like those of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, play an enormous role in helping the people promoting these ideas. The victims of this algorithm are usually very impressionable kids or teens, people who could be sitting right beside you.
According to a study done by Google, the algorithm of YouTube steers people towards a small, related group of videos in order to choose videos that will interest the user out of the billions of YouTube videos. With every click, YouTube knows more and more about what interests the user, and will keep recommending more and more videos attuned to this user’s taste to keep the user consuming content. However, each video must be novel but related to the earlier content. When this algorithm is applied to alt-right ideas, it is easy for people to fall into a hole.
Let me give you an example. You are a 12-year-old white, Christian boy. You haven’t quite formed an opinion on the world yet, you are easily influenced and haven’t established your identity. One day, you come home from school and go on YouTube. There, you are recommended a video, “Feminist Cringe!” You watch it, curious. It seems harmless, just online jokes. The YouTube algorithm takes this into its system and autoplays the next video on a similar topic.
You go on Instagram and see a meme making a joke about a slightly racist topic, but it’s just a joke, right? Due to these algorithms, you gradually see more and more of these memes and videos. Since the algorithm needs to produce novel images and videos in the same vein of content, you gradually begin to see more outwardly racist and anti-semitic memes. Soon, you are watching far-right YouTubers, introduced to extreme racist ideology, diving into far right conspiracy theories.
You don’t have to imagine it. Junior Sydney Faux performed an experiment on the Instagram algorithm to see just exactly how this happened. As a person with more “liberal and leftist ideas,” she wanted to “investigate the other side.” She created a new Instagram account with conservative pundits. She started following conservative political accounts. “Immediately after this, I was introduced to more alt-right content,” she said. “It started with some not so politically correct memes, but by the end of the week, I was coming across white supremacist pages with white supremacist memes.”
An important aspect of both of these situations is that it starts out small. The alt-right ideology is disguised as memes and jokes on the internet, trivializing and normalizing racism and anti-semitism. At that point, outright racism is still repulsive. These jokes gradually become more extreme. The user begins to take on more radical ideas, and the algorithm continues recommending them to an enormous volume of alt-right content. They become desensitized, and racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism becomes normal. They begin to dehumanize anyone they perceive as “other.”
Of course, these once ordinary people are not going to take an enormous leap from “everyday citizen” to “white supremacist” in just a day. The radicalization occurs in small steps, nudging the user along until they have dug themselves into a hole so deep they cannot climb out.
This is what happened to Bruno Joseph Cua. He is an 18-year-old from Atlanta who entered the Capitol building and gained access to the House and Senate chambers. Before the insurrection, Cua said online, “lock the swamp rat tyrants in the capitol and burn the place to the ground.” His lawyers claim he was only parroting what he saw online. An aspect of that is certainly true.
Acts of terror like the Capitol riots do not require a set group that meets in person. Online, extremist ideas can run rampant, anonymous and undetected. Still, falling down this alt-right algorithm hole is not an excuse for these people. There is always a choice, a different path they chose not to take when watching these videos and looking at these memes. What we should be concerned about now is preventing this from happening.
As Faux said, “I think it’s especially scary because it is always possible for people at Pace to fall down the same hole. I can imagine those who are more right leaning going down that same path.” Social media platforms need to protect those most vulnerable to these ideas: children and teenagers. Education around these topics needs to start earlier. We cannot have another Bruno Cua. While this will not end white supremacism, education, social media companies taking preventative measures, and simply knowing how this process works can stop ordinary, everyday people from falling down this hole.
Top photo: Bruno Joseph Cua, the 18-year-old from the Atlanta area who was arrested after participating in the Jan. 6th Capitol insurrection. Photo: Instagram