Falsity's Headwaters: Social Media, Radicalization, and the Subjectivity of Political Truth

Teuta Zeneli | May 2021

(Clockwise) Jake Angeli (also known as the "QAnon Shamon"), entering the Twitter app, Al Qaeda propaganda)


ocial media has an established negative influence on mental health and has been linked to the ideological radicalization of its users. Relevancy is quantified by “likes” and “retweets” on Twitter, sending subliminal messages to users as to what opinions should be held. Users with more radical and extreme views garner larger followings, which spreads influence and reinforces the narrative that more extreme views are more relevant. 


When people we follow on social media are upset about something, it can more easily make us, the follower, upset with them, creating a dynamic where a leader sets the scene for reactions and rhetoric for an audience. People are told how to feel about something based on what their favorite users say, and learn how to debate things using the talking points that they see on the web. This kind of parasocial relationship between social media users and popular personalities affects current political debate among average people, leading individuals to create their own “echo chambers” online, which, in turn, results in a positive feedback loop of radicalization. 


Digital, Political Warfare


Social media has made politics and connecting with political figures more accessible than ever--for better or worse. The implications of social media's role in radicalizing users and creating parasocial relationships between relevant, extreme figures and their audiences undoubtedly leaves an impact on the emotions, opinions, and the actions of average social media users. Politicians have changed the way they communicate due to social media, tweeting directly to their followers on a much more informal level. They can release statements out to anyone who encounters them online, and people can respond to them, and better yet, the politicians might see how their followers have responded and learn how to cater to their audience. In fact, a public figure’s choice to be active on social media can lead them to receive more financial donations, which makes campaigning through social media a clear priority for those attempting to get elected. 


Politics in particular has been the ultimate breeding ground for social media-enabled radicalization and extremism. A notoriously public example of this occurred when Russia was accused of tampering with the 2016 presidential election, allegedly attempting to sway the election results in favor of Trump. This was specifically done through the creation of bots on websites like Twitter and Facebook, done in order to flood public pages and threads with right-wing rhetoric and conspiracies that confused truth and shifted on-the-fence voters towards the right. This narrative was incredibly contested on the right, and Democrats were accused of inventing a conspiracy to delegitimize the win of a non-conventional Republican. Each side set a narrative, and what we thought was “true” was colored by partisanship (despite a bipartisan investigation). Partisan speculation aside, these social media bots exercised influence, according to a recent FBI probe discovering that Russia and Iran engaged in this kind of election tampering to push voters towards Trump and Biden, respectively. The goal for each was to launch campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of either candidate through social media--the globally accessible apparatus through which these foreign governments have the largest opportunity to reach the American populace. 


Here, we can clearly see a shift in how social media was used to manipulate opinions. Before, it was used for recruitment into extremist groups like Al Qaeda, and incited violence through creating faux communities acting as the main conduit for radicalization. In recent events, however, bots and extremist personalities have instead been used to persuade public opinion of a certain narrative. In this way, more people are getting targeted, algorithms make sure that people are seeing posts that they are already predisposed to like, and average people in the masses are becoming more radical and extreme by coming into contact with people who share their beliefs.


Social Media and Radicalization


Dr. Robin Thompson writes in The Journal of Strategic Security about the recruitment strategies of politically extremist groups, stating that social media acts as the perfect vessel for radicalization. Because of the accessibility and addictive nature of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, users end up spending significant amounts of time on the platforms and form friendships and relationships that make them feel connected to a larger community. Because of this, groups like Al Qaeda were able to utilize social media as a communication tool to befriend and manipulate struggling youths. 


The perceived community offered by social media plays a significant role in indoctrinating users to new, radical ideas posed by their “friends” or members of their newfound community. 


The Wall Street Journal also published an article linking social media and isolation to mass violence, stating that social media played a role in radicalizing half of individuals in extremist groups, radicalizing and mobilizing 90% of “lone wolf actors.” 


In the absence of real social interaction, our generation has access to a global database of people, which can create the illusion of a community: the appearance of friendship. People who are lonely in real life get preyed on for precisely this reason. They are vulnerable simply because they are missing some kind of fulfillment, because they want to belong to something, to connect with other people. When someone finds an iota of that kind of connection and belonging, the addictive nature of social media compounds with the sense of importance, of being a part of something, and people may easily bend to the will of radical figures, persuaded to violence or extremism. During the present pandemic, real social interaction is extremely limited, so it can be assumed that the more time spent online may lead to a greater dependence on internet communities.


The missing piece of all of this, of course, is who sets the narrative, and what becomes “true”. The power possessed by figures on social media in accruing a following, particularly in the case of extremist groups, is tantamount. This kind of social authority and popularity can be used to recreate events to fit a narrative, and it can be used to make followers see what isn’t there: to extract a conspiracy from seemingly innocuous details.


Conspiracy theories such as PizzaGate and QAnon fit into the latter category, and have flourished on social media platforms where users who are becoming increasingly radicalized. The QAnon conspiracy in particular sparked a lot of media attention following the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, due to many of the rioters donning apparel with the letter “Q” on it. The conspiracy itself started in 2017, where an anonymous source called “Q” went on the social media platform 4Chan to drop “breadcrumbs'', explicating an elaborate conspiracy theory about a cabal of blood-drinking, satan-worshipping pedophiles that infiltrated the “deep state” elite class, and secretly lead the world. He claimed authority by alleging himself to be a highly decorated government official in close contact with the executive branch. “Q” stressed that former President Donald Trump was put into office to finally take down the cabal, and save the children by enacting martial law and having figures like the Clintons and George Soros executed and arrested. The theory itself has antisemetic roots, with similar accusations being thrown at the Jewish community throughout history (like the blood libel conspiracy), but has redressed itself to be less overt. Other random inanities within the conspiracy persist, such as the idea that JFK Jr. is still alive and working with Trump, and that a Rothschild space laser caused the California wildfires. 


The conspiracy is farfetched enough that it almost doesn’t seem worth talking about when discussing politics and radicalization. Unfortunately, the past year has changed that. Half of Americans are aware of the QAnon conspiracy, and, since the coronavirus quarantine began, the movement has accumulated more followers. In fact, in the past election a QAnon believer was voted into Congress (though it is worth noting that she claims she no longer believes in the conspiracy). The line between conspiracy and politics is blurred, and there lies an intense connection between overindulgence in these internet communities and real, deadly consequences. Individuals led astray by radical groups pay no heed to the truth and reality, as such things are inconsequential to the ideologue, and, as a result, the integrity of our political system and national security is damaged. .


What Happens Now? 


The conspiracy question has become personal for me. At dinner one January night, a family member of mine sneered at us with a gleam in her eyes and proclaimed that Joe Biden wouldn’t become president. This family member was notoriously addicted to social media, and in the past year had become increasingly alt-right. She had abandoned social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, for newly invented social media platforms like Gab and Parler (conservative alternatives used to counter censorship and fact-checking). Every conversation had become a political one, and whenever I tried to debate her with a factual statement she would roll her eyes and say something along the lines of, “Of course you would think that, you only read mainstream news. You need to think outside the box.”


I do not believe that she is a full QAnon supporter, but I saw whispers of it in her rhetoric. When I received an unhinged text from her where I was accused of being a pedophile for not supporting Trump in the most recent election, I realized how deep rooted it was. This is a woman who is highly educated, who played a significant role in raising me as a child, and for whom I had (have?) a great respect. And at that dinner table, and in our text conversations that I have to mute, I see someone who is unrecognizable. 


I don’t know what her gateway was, I don’t know what is to be blamed for this kind of thing. I don’t know if it was her friends on Instagram or a targeted ad on Facebook, but I do know that lies and conspiracies have poisoned our relationship and symbolize a bigger issue. 


This cult mentality that social media has enabled, putting extreme conspiracy theorists in touch with normal people and indoctrinating them to their causes feels nearly impossible to unzip. It is impossible to win or even have a rhetorical argument against someone who is so radicalized, as their  arguments aren’t based on actual facts. “Truth” is fed to conspiracy theorists on a spoon of social media-induced indoctrination, a “truth” that is merely rooted in abstract fantasy. At the mention of Reuters or the Associated Press, the conversation is already lost because any reputable news site is seen as government propaganda by those infiltrated by the lies of an unhinged political minority. I have learned not to even mention things like the Washington Post or, at this point, even Fox News because it’s all “propaganda.” It gets to a point where the only things that can be “trusted” are random blogs and YouTube videos created by admittedly talented orators, and whoever else is willing to fit in or advance the narrative.


The political implications of this are nothing short of troubling. Thousands of adults believe these kinds of conspiracies, and everyone is pushed further and further to each pole by algorithms and targeted ads and influencers. Dismantling conspiracy theories with truth is ineffective, because there is always a revisionist “truth” that is more appealing to those who are in the thick of it. So much doubt has been cast on any kind of authority--be it federal or on cable TV--that the only way out seems to be to just wait for the conspiracy to fall apart, to wait until people get tired of believing. Or, until they do something violent  and are imprisoned for it.


Neither of these seem palatable to me, but it feels like the radicalization and polarization has spiralled out of control to the point where it's out of anyone else's hands. This is the double-edged sword that comes with the convenience of online interaction. The political effects of this activity have literally been deadly, and I worry about the long term effects this may have on violent radical groups that exist within the US. At best, this is a national security risk that the government stamps out. But at worst, this is a symptom of a greater issue. At worst, we face the possibility that this may just be the beginning. 


In Conclusion


All in all, this is something to monitor and to be aware of when using social media. Indeed, people sometimes lie, and radicalization can happen more easily than we’d like to admit. These are not new things, but the reach and influence of these lies and persuasions have a stunning, incredibly efficient conduit, and it’s here to stay whether we like it or not. 


Yet one cannot help but feel that we should all know better. Personally, I remember being taught by my mother not to trust everything I read on the internet, because people can post whatever they want. It’s a shame that this important truth seems to have been forgotten.

Teuta Zeneli is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies and French. Interested in foreign policy and human rights, she focuses on researching post-conflict societies and the national security implications of political insecurities within them. Outside of MC, she likes to write poetry, embroider, and cook Balkan cuisine.