Right-wing social-media platforms and extreme conservative voices which were instrumental in fomenting the seditious riots on the US Capitol last week are being taken down one-by-one by the major social-media and hosting platforms. These are unprecedented historical and unmistakably political, ideological and moral statements denouncing the growing threat of extreme right-wing terror groups “whose grievances are rooted in racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ sentiments, Islamophobia and perceptions of government overreach.” Some are also linking this rise in extreme right-wing terror groups with a concurrent rise in toxic masculinity among disenfranchised middle-class white men. Disenfranchised middle-class white men who not only found support for their extreme views through social-media, but have increased their numbers through the spread and amplification of hate-filled rhetoric on popular platforms. Although these social-media platforms may not have been intentionally designed to spread misinformation, hate-speech, extreme right-wing terrorism or to derail democracies, that is exactly how they are increasingly being used today. Social-media not only helped spread and amplify misinformation around COVID-19 contributing to a global health crisis, but it also played a major role in the spread and amplification of online hate-speech and growth in hate-groups. Ultimately leading to increased off-line violence which has now culminating in a coordinated, murderous and seditious attack on the US Capitol on January 6th 2021.
Both the dangerous spread of COVID-19 misinformation and the seditious, murderous attack on the US Capital should be seen as a wake-up call, a tipping point for regulatory, technological and moral change across the social-media landscape. So how did we get here and what should happen next?
2020 started off with a bang when it delivering us the COVID-19 pandemic. Which led to unprecedented mobilization and heroic global efforts by scientists, doctors and governments around the world to understand the virus, identify evidence-backed responses to curb the spread and to develop vaccines faster than any time in history. What we did not count on was that a delusional malignant narcissist hell-bent on wining an election in the United States would perceive the global health risks of the pandemic as a political and personal threat. A delusional malignant narcissist with over 150 million followers across multiple social-media platforms who engaged his well-honed media savvy to leverage the emotionally and psychologically manipulative algorithms on those platforms to grow, organize and incite his base. All the way to the violent insurrection on the US Capitol which left five people dead. As much as I hesitate to describe him this way, Trump is very much an Evil Genius when it came to recognising the identity-vacuum of a disenfranchised middle-class, and then leveraging the mechanics of social-media for his own twisted personal, ideological and political goals by spreading misinformation and unfounded claims about election fraud. Then again it is also entirely possible that many of the “evil” strings on Donald Trump are being pulled by Stephen Miller. Along with many examples of extreme right-wing evil and policies grounded in white-supremacy, the architect of the family separation policy). But I digress.
“There are very tangible harms that come from manipulating people. In the United States, the public health response to Covid-19 has been inhibited by widespread disinformation about the existence of the virus or false claims about different kinds of treatment that do not work”. ~ Christopher Wylie
Although the dangerous spread of COVID-19 misinformation and claims of election fraud in 2020 did eventually led to increased moderation and flagging of certain content, the major social-media platforms have been reluctant to outright ban the most egregious offenders with the largest followers, or to revise their algorithms which intentionally exploit and amplify our moral emotions through emotional contagion. But thanks to COVID-19, Donald Trump and the attack on the US Capitol, a tipping point may now have finally been reached. A tipping point possibly leading to the massive overhaul of social-media with new regulations, and hopefully transparency with regards to those psychologically manipulative algorithms. Regulations that may prevent or at least limit their use as tools for wide-spread social, political and psychological manipulation leading to the spread of dangerous misinformation, threats to democracy, hateful rhetoric and as we are increasingly witnessing, real-world violence.
“Tech companies are distracting, dividing and outraging citizens to the point where there is little basis for common ground. This is a direct threat to democracy”. ~ Tristan Harris
Make no mistake, the spread of misinformation and online hatred through social-media is directly linked to increasing health risks from the pandemic, dismantling of the democratic process along with increasing social unrest and real-world violence. And although the initial response from major social-media companies to the growing awareness that amplifying online hate is leading to offline violence was tepid, things have changed significantly in only a couple days. The big social-media companies have FINALLY started to take reasonable and necessary steps in order to curb and prevent the dangerous use of their platforms, starting at the top with Twitter Royalty, Donald Trump.
Following the violent and seditious attack on the US Capital, Donald Trump’s social-media infrastructure and right-wing megaphones have been rapidly dismantled and silenced. Since the attack on the Capitol which was fomented by Trump and his Republican sycophants on social-media, Twitter enacted a 12 hour suspension on his account and then permanently banned him for inciting violence. Instantly cutting off his right-wing megaphone to nearly 90 million followers. After months of muted responses by merely removing a few posts and flagging others which made false claims about the COVID-19 virus and wide-spread election fraud, Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts have also been shut down indefinitely. Once again silencing his voice to another 35 and 24 million followers respectively. Along with Donald Trump’s incendiary social-media megaphones being taken down, many other right-wing conservative voices and Trump sycophants are also being shut out of the major platforms for spreading lies or fomenting violence. in 2018 Alex Jones — another purveyor of violent, racist and anti-Semitic content — was booted off Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Apple platforms. Trump’s original campaign manager and white-nationalist conservative pundit Steve Bannon had his Twitter account shut down last November after talks of beheading, and now his Youtube channel has been taken down after calling for violence against FBI Director Steven Ray and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Following Trump’s ban from Twitter, controversial right-wing conservative voice-box Rush Limbaugh seems to have deactivated his own account. A video recently posted by disgraced Trump lawyer Rudy Giulini was also removed for violating YouTube’s policies on misinformation. Twitter has also taken down the accounts of other high-ranking Trump allies like Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell for spreading false information or stoking violence. And Donald is not the only Trump facing a growing backlash against the spread of false information and right-wing extremism on social-media. Donald Trump Jr has been warned about his own false claims about COVID-19 on Twitter and Facebook. And now that Tiffany Trump has started to re-tweet and spread her father’s banned messages while lamenting his social-media expulsion, she may become the next Trump family member to be banned from one or more platforms. Possibly in fear of losing their own accounts, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr and his wife Kimberly Guilfoyle as well as Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, have been noticeably silent on social-media since the attack on the Capitol.
Within barely 2 days Donald Trump and many other extreme right-wing voices and platforms have been eviscerated, cut off from communicating their message to millions of followers.
And it’s not just the largest and most recognised social-media platforms who are stepping up to plate in their efforts to curb the misuse of their platforms and the spread of misinformation or hate-speech. Smaller, less-known but growing platforms which cater to extreme right-wing ideologies and the spread of hate-speech due to minimal content regulation, are also facing a growing backlash. In 2018 Microsoft warned the right-wing platform Gab that they would be taken off the Azure hosting platform if they did not start controlling hate speech and they have been bouncing from one hosting provider to the next ever since. Also in 2018, the payment platforms Stripe and Paypal banned Gab after the Pittsburgh shooting. And recently following the attacks on the Capitol, both Google and Apple have blocked the alternative right-wing conservative platform Parler from their app stores and now Amazon which provides the hosting for Parler, took the platform off-line completely at midnight tonight on January 10 2021. Parler CEO John Matze is quoted recently as saying that “every vendor” is ditching the company, even his own lawyer!
So what is going on here and how much of a role does social-media actually play in the growing spread of online hate groups and offline violence? Did social-media actually foment and enable the attacks on the US Capitol and if so, what can be done to prevent such events from happening again? I can’t speak to the political or social factors involved with these events but I think the technical, social-media and most importantly the psychological and emotional factors are unmistakable and there is ample evidence pointing to a direct link between the growth of online hate speech and offline violence.
We should also not be surprised at what we are witnessing today with these escalating online and offline displays of organized hate or violence stoked by social-media which has prompted (something of) a backlash from politicians and corporations. And the numbers would appear to bare this out. While there has been a global decrease in Islamic terrorist threats over the past few years, there has also been a frightening and corresponding increase in far-right extremism and domestic terrorism with groups like QAnon, Proud Boys , white nationalism and other neo-Nazis white supremacy groups in the United States and Europe increasing their numbers. Many feel that social-media has played a direct role in the growth of these extreme groups and the spread of online hate leading to offline violence. Curiously — but maybe not surprisingly — after falling for the last four years of the Obama administration, the number of hate groups in the US has seen a steady rise. Beginning in 2015 when Trump launched his 2016 presidential run, the number of hate-groups in the US has risen steadily throughout his term as can be seen in the chart below. And although there appears to be a drop in the number of hate groups for 2019, the FBI reported that 2020 saw the largest number of hate crimes in a single year going back more than a decade, and the largest number of hate-motivated killings since they started collecting the stats in the 1990’s. Could it be as simple as the combination of a malignant narcissist in a position of power, with psychologically manipulative social-media, that is behind these disturbing trends? I believe it is.
These are trouble trends but the warning signs linking online hate with offline violence have been right in front of us for at least the past few years. We began to see the direct links between online hate and offline violence when a deranged man entered a pizza restaurant in 2017 in Washington DC claiming to be responding to the bizarre conspiracy theory of a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving top Democrats such as Hillary Clinton. This link between online hate through social-media and offline violence was also evident during the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 where the attack was live-streamed on Facebook by a domestic terrorist radicalised on YouTube. The same lesson linking the spread of online hate through social-media to real-world violence happened when Facebook ignored warnings around a planned militia event which resulted in a double shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year. And this past fall, armed supporters of the QAnon movement who hold the ludicrous belief that Trump is waging a war against Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles in the government and media, were arrested outside a ballot-counting center in Pennsylvania.
Although social-media companies may have been unwilling participants in the spread of misinformation and right-wing hate, or the seditious attack on the US Capitol, they are not entirely innocent. They certainly intended to exploit human emotions and psychology on their platforms for profit. The documentary The Social Dilemma exposed this uncomfortable truth to the world in 2020. Again, although these social-media companies may not have intended for their platforms and algorithms to be used to spread misinformation and hate, they failed to consider how these same tools could be exploited by others — including demagogic malignant narcissists and foreign adversaries like Putin. And Facebook is front-and-center here since it was their invention of the Like button which first shed light on the profit-potential of exploiting human emotions and psychology. Ever since the invention of the Like button, Facebook and other social-media companies realized that identifying the interests and emotional states of its users would allow them to build algorithms that leveraged our tendency to attend to emotional content, which would then spread further through emotional contagion. This increased attention on content driven by emotions, spread by contagion and held through simple reinforcement and addiction mechanisms gleaned from the gambling industry, would also draw in more advertising revenue. Simply knowing what we liked or disliked, what angered us, annoyed us or led to moral outrage, could be exploited to make more money. Simple as that.
Sure, these social-media companies may have been blind to how their profit-driven designs and algorithms could be used to spread dangerous lies about the pandemic, disrupt the democratic process from foreign adversaries or the President himself, and even lead to a violent insurrection and coo attempt on the Capitol by right-wing extremists. But now that we know how their platforms can disrupt the flow of truth, manipulate our emotions and attention and amplify online hate until it leads to offline violence, we should no longer accept their muted or tepid responses to these dangers. Legislators and CEO’s of social-media companies will need to go much farther than simply tagging posts or banning those who violate their rules. They appear to have started that process with their sweeping house-cleaning of dangerous, misinformation-spreading and violence-inciting voices or platforms, but it’s not going to be enough IMO. The major social-media companies are now on notice by the billions of users who use their platforms, to do better. To do MUCH better and to take the lead on how their platforms, algorithms and design choices can be used deliver them the profits they need, while also serving a much larger social good.
“When the result [of misinformation] is an inhibited public health response to a pandemic or the undermining of confidence in our democratic institutions, because people are being manipulated with objectively false information, there has to be some kind of accountability for platforms”. ~ Christopher Wylie
The cat is out of the bag now and I am speaking directly to you Mark, Jack, Sundar and all the CEO’s of the other rising social-media platforms. We the public now know how some of your algorithms work (to a degree). We know they can lead to the spread of misinformation, hate speech and even offline violence. And these same profit-driven tools, addictive design choices, sweeping data collection and psychological algorithms are being leveraged by bad-actors for nefarious goals. You are not innocent bystanders in what occurred at the US Capitol on January 6th 2021. You social-media companies need to take some responsibility now and be held accountable to some degree. At the very least you should step up to the plate on your own accord to work with government, industry and positive technology experts like the Center For Humane Technology and help drive solutions to these technical, social, political — dare I say HUMANITARIAN-— challenges without being asked.
2020 may be defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement. But it has also been a year of rapid growth in right-wing extremist groups like QAnon and Proud Boys. A disturbing growth in hate groups certainly bolstered by the election of a malignant narcissist to the most powerful post on the planet. And when a media-savvy malignant narcissist takes advantage of platforms which not only allow misinformation and hate to spread but amplifies them, we have the crisis we find ourselves facing now. The spread of misinformation, hate and the rise of extreme far-right groups has even supplanted Islamic Jihadist plots as the biggest threat to the US and Europe. And although social-media companies are finally confronting the lies being spread on their platforms and removing accounts from the worst offenders, far more still needs to be done to put a stop to these dangerous trends.
“If an individual in a position of political power is a psychopath, he or she can create an epidemic of psychopathology in people who are not, essentially, psychopathic.” ~ Andrzej Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology
Sure, the US political machine (and all democracies) certainly needs a serious revamping in order deal with their pathocracy problem to prevent such disturbed, clearly unfit and dangerous individuals from entering any level of government service. But this article was not intended to consider that aspect of this crisis. I merely wanted to draw attention to the indisputable role that social-media played in these events and so I believe there are (at least) three categories of changes which could help minimize the spread of misinformation, limit the growth of hate-speech and hate-groups online and reduce the overall potential harms of social-media for users.
I believe regulation is the place to start and many countries around the world feel the same way. Along with tighter data collection and privacy regulations at least as comprehensive as the GDPR in the EU. Look, I get it. It is understandable that many people cringe at the idea of MORE, rather than less, regulations in any industry. But I believe the evidence supporting the need for more regulations in both privacy controls and social-media in particular, is now irrefutable. Allowing misinformation about a global pandemic to spread and become amplified on social-media is costing the lives of thousands of people a day. Not to mention costing governments and healthcare systems billions of dollars and dismantling trust in the democratic process. Allowing wide-spread data collection and psychometric analysis based on psychologically manipulative and intentionally addictive platforms to remain unchecked, is ethically indefensible. Allowing hate-speech and far right extreme ideologies to find a purchase on social-media where the dangerous online rhetoric leads to more offline violence all the way to the US Capitol, is a crime against humanity. Regulations are needed and they can help limit these dangerous t it this trends.
Roger McNamee, an early founder of Facebook and author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, believes that “this idea that corporations can convert your life into data and then use it to manipulate your behaviour, that should be illegal.” (YouTube). And when it comes to the role of social-media and the attack on the Capitol, McNamee feels that these “platforms must pay for their role in the insurrection” (Wired).
“None of most powerful tech companies answer to what’s best for people, only to what’s best for them”. ~ Tristan Harris
2: Increased Data/Privacy Protections & Humanitarian Incentives
Along with regulatory changes from government and industry, we also need to recognize and address the unethical nature of allowing the collection and exploitation of behavioral and psychometric data on billions of people for the purposes of profit alone. I mean honestly, how the hell can we as a society allow this to continue? Imagine the individual, social and humanitarian good that could come from also using all this predictive psychometric data to identify those most at risk in our communities and feed them the knowledge, resources and supports that would maximise their chances of healing. Imagine when the psychology of happiness and well-being is combined with all this psychometric and potentially manipulative data, to help steer people towards wellness and flourishing? Imagine if profit were tied to maximising social and humanitarian needs predicted by all this psychological data? Maybe a bit ideological but at the very least Canada (my country) and the US should be looking at adopting the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the EU, the current gold standard for data and privacy protection.
3: Education on Healthy Technology Use (Positive Technology)
Based on what I have written here it might appear that I am opposed to social-media and see nothing but negative roles for these platforms. This could not be further from the truth and I have written frequently about the healthy, positive, psychological, spiritual and cultural potential of social-media. I spent over 4 years researching the links between social-media and well-being for a Masters Thesis. I also developed and tested a Facebook Strategy For Well-Being which took what I learned about the exploitive algorithms on the platform, what can and cannot be configured, what I know about the psychology of happiness and well-being and using Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of happiness, created and tested the strategy with 6 subjects. I then measured subjective well-being before, during and after the strategy was deployed for 4 weeks. All subjects self-reported increased levels of happiness and well-being, their outlook on Facebook improved and every subject indicated they would carry on using the “strategy” after the study ended. In spite of the many ways various technologies like social-media can be used in exploitive and unhealthy ways — especially for some at-risk and vulnerable groups like teens or disenfranchised middle-aged white men — these same technologies can also be used to bolster social-connections, enact positive social or political change (Arab Spring) and even boost happiness and well-being. The science behind the healthy and positive use of technologies like social-media is already here. We just need to put it into the hands (or heads) of the people and communities who need it the most. This should include not only educating adults an parents, but teaching children the healthy use of technologies like social-media should become part of the elementary school system.
These are pretty simple and obvious suggestions on how to begin addressing the links between social-media and the spread of misinformation, hate and violence. Many other far more comprehensive ideas about how social-media might be regulated comes from a report which was published in November 2020 from the Forum on Information and Democracy (FID). According to the FID web site, one of it’s mandates is The International Partnership on Information and Democracy which is “an intergovernmental non-binding agreement endorsed by 38 countries around the world to promote and implement democratic principles in the global information and communication space. It was formally signed during the 74th UN General Assembly in September 2019”. The report itself is based on more than 100 contributions from international experts around the world and “offers 250 recommendations on how to rein in a phenomenon that threatens democracies and human rights, including the right to health”. The Steering Committee of the FID even includes Christopher Wylie, the Canadian data scientist and whistleblower who reported the Cambridge Analytica privacy and data scandal with Facebook in 2018.
Another source of valuable information on how we can learn to design and use technology in a responsible and humane manner, comes from the Center for Humane Technology (CHT). Many of you reading this article will have seen the shocking documentary called The Social Dilemma which exposed the ugly truth behind how these social-media platforms have been designed to exploit our addictive and emotional weaknesses for profit. If you have not seen it, I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE you to watch The Social Dilemma. One of the many frequent speakers in that documentary is Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the CHT
“We’re going to need a new social contract with the tech world one that asks for consent, and one with transparent goals. Right now, the goals of technology are not aligned with our goals as humans. We need technology that empowers us to make the life choices we want to make.” ~ Tristan Harris
In the name of public health and political interest, there seems to be little doubt now that social-media should be regulated, data and privacy protections need to be improved and knowing how to use social-media and other technologies in a healthy manner should become common knowledge. In spite of the political and social crisis still unfolding in the United States driven at least partially by the exploitation of social-media, I firmly hold to the long-term positive potential for social-media. Every single American social-media CEO also needs to stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves how they want to be remembered in the history books. How do they want their children to remember them and what will they leave behind as their legacy. Now that they have witnessed the unprecedented destruction of their country’s democratic process, the almost uncontained spread of the COVID-19 virus which is killing up to 4,000 of their fellow citizens each day, and the dangerous rise in right-wing extremism and other hate-groups which led to the violent insurrection at the Capitol, the status quo will no longer hold. It’s your move Mark, Jack, Sundar and all the CEO’s of the other rising social-media platforms.
“As long as social media companies profit from addiction, depression, and division, our society will continue to be at risk“. ~ Center for Humane Technology