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‘Be skeptical': What you need to know about extremist online communities

Internet Creep
JacobFG
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Americans are processing several tragedies right now - Buffalo, Uvalde, and the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last year, which we’re now learning more about through investigative public hearings. There is one thing these events have in common: the perpetrators were part of extreme online communities. Anyone, anywhere can find these websites and groups. Which means you should know more about them.

Heather Williams is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a professor at Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California. She analyzes extremists' use of online spaces and this year she submitted testimony to the Jan. 6 investigative committee.

Listen to Texas Tech Public Media’s interview with Williams above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Sarah Self-Walbrick: This is a complicated issue that I hope we can unpack some. So let’s start with this example - you’ve specifically dug into how the far-right Jan. 6 insurrectionists used online platforms. What did you learn? 

Heather Williams: I think one of the most important things we learned is that they're using the same internet platforms that most Americans use. There's not some separate internet that extremism is isolated to. It's not all there on the deep web or the dark web. You are likely to encounter some of this extreme rhetoric on any platform, even those that we might consider mainstream, popular spaces.

Self-Walbrick: How are these radical people and groups using the internet to spread their ideas?

Williams: One of the things that the internet gives extremist groups is the ability to transcend some of the geographic barriers or divisions that might exist between them, so you can talk to people elsewhere in the country. The other thing is, you can kind of get over some of the credibility burden that might exist if you were talking to somebody face to face. You don't actually know who I am, how I'm presenting myself online. And so I can present myself in a way that you might be more friendly to, than if you were to actually have to encounter me in real life. So they can make themselves seem as if they are more like-minded to an average American than they might actually be. So I think that is another big advantage that they have in using online spaces.

Self-Walbrick: What are some of the motives for most of these groups? Is it about growing their following or something else?

Williams: One thing I would just mention is… it's not a very well-structured movement. So there aren't exactly groups. I mean, we've heard about some of them: the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, those sorts of things. But this is not a really cohesive, organizationally-oriented movement. It's very post-organizational. So that means, one, it's hard to figure out what it is that they might stand for, because they aren't organized to that extent, and different individuals might be pursuing different things.

I think some people are true believers in the cause of some of these extremist positions that they have, they genuinely believe that this should be an all-white country. Or they genuinely believe that we should not have a federal government, which I think, almost all of us would agree, is not what we want for the United States.

There may be other individuals who are enriching themselves through this movement. There may be some who just seek the popularity or notoriety that they get from being involved. So there's not one specific motive. And it's very hard to really pin some of these things down because of how fluid and dynamic and unstructured this movement is.

Self-Walbrick: Is there any group, in particular, that’s most at risk of finding this kind of content?

Williams: There are a lot of reasons why somebody could be at risk of radicalization to an extreme cause. I don't think they would be too surprising to many of us: individuals who are more isolated, who are searching for a sense of purpose, who don't have strong connections to their family or their community. Those are reasons why somebody could be more receptive to some of this rhetoric.

I do think it's important for us all to keep in mind our own vulnerabilities that our cognitive biases create for us, all of us. Just the way, as humans, that we think. We are inclined to be friendlier or more accepting of facts, something that we hear over and over and over again. And we are more receptive to ideas that are consistent with ideas we already hold. We don't like hearing things that contradict what we think. These individuals, and these movements, are looking to prey upon that and often package their extreme positions in a sort of a less extreme packaging, so that it's something that might seem more akin to a belief that you might already hold, and then slowly pull you to a more extreme position on that issue.

Self-Walbrick: What are some things that the average internet user should keep an eye out for online? 

Williams: It's really hard to understand what we are seeing online these days. It's hard to understand where it is coming from. If I were to give a piece of advice, especially when we're looking at information online, it’s to always be skeptical. Try to think where this is coming from, particularly if it seems very sensational. We all have a tendency to like sensational news that appeals to us. But in the real world, things are often not as dramatic as they might be on television. Always have that little doubting voice in your head. Especially when you're online, I think you really should be embracing that a little bit more and asking some critical questions. Who's telling me this? And what might be the agenda? Is there some agenda? Is there some advantage for somebody, if I retweet this or I echo this, that gave them a reason to tell me something less than the truth?

Self-Walbrick: Because these groups often target young people, what do you suggest parents look out for in their kid's online use? 

Williams: They're particularly targeting younger people in order to conduct action, it's young people that they might be really pushing towards acts of violence. I think parents should try to be very careful and observant about what it is that their kids are looking at online. This has been really hard over the last two years with COVID, with just a lot of young people spending more time online.

American University has an organization called Peril. They've been trying to put together material for parents to help them understand what their kids could be looking at, what more they can do to try to protect their kids. But it really is in a lot of places that young people are. For example, chats on video games. That is a big space. Or the social media platforms dedicated to those gaming communities, where we have seen these extremist groups try to infiltrate because they know it's going to give them access to those young people and potentially in a way that their parents don't see.

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

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