14 July 2021

One way or another, we’re all exposed to ‘extremist’ content

By Nick Cowen

Facebook users are currently being deluged with warnings on their timelines about exposure to extremist content. They are invited to access specialist support to cleanse them of harm and refer recently red-pilled friends for intervention.

This is not an unlikely phishing scam, it is Facebook HQ’s attempt to address the political class’s monster of the decade: social media-facilitated political extremism. But users have reacted with a mixture of confusion, incredulity, and anger when their favourite news and opinion sources are labelled as “extreme”. The trouble is, extremism is very difficult to pin down, whether you are human or algorithm.

Facebook’s scheme is only the latest in a series of attempts to address the ideological underpinnings of politically motivated violence, including far-right and Islamist terrorism. In my contribution to a new book published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Having Your Say, I show why targeting extremist content is so scattershot.

The key problem is definition. What policymakers conceptualise as dangerously extreme beliefs are more common than we like to imagine. To give an example, we might hope that support for democracy is a fundamental public belief – yet support is tepid even in countries with relatively solid histories of democratic self-government. What about tolerance for people of other ethnicities? Under the cloak of anonymity, a substantial minority of Brits identify themselves as quite or very racist in surveys. Unfortunately, these views cannot be defeated by treating them as if they were held by only a villainous minority.

This means that often the difference between a supposed extremist and mainstream political actor is about who they are rather than what they say. For example, the racist stereotypes propagated on far-right chatrooms also appear in the 2004 novel ‘Seventy Two Virgins’. The author? Then-MP and journalist, Boris Johnson.

When questioned about his plausibly racist writings, the Prime Minister does not defend them as such, but merely asserts they are irrelevant: they come from a different time and place in his life.

So, it turns out that whether content is “extreme” often depends on the source. Does it come from an unknown bedroom YouTuber with a fat mic or a well-heeled journalist in a potting shed writing an op-ed for a traditional newspaper? One is a dangerous extremist; the other is a contender for high office.

A similar double-standard often applies to public policy. The far-right British National Party’s support for aggressive repatriation of migrants was partially implemented through Theresa May’s hostile environment policy when she was Home Secretary. The resulting Windrush Scandal was a horrific human rights violation of those deported and their families, and yet liberal democracy survives. The difference between the right-wing extremist and the common reactionary is slightly different rhetoric and a very different fashion sense.

The shifting official lines during the pandemic illustrates how certain perspectives can represent dangerous extremism one moment and become common knowledge the next.

Last year, establishment sources such as Anthony Fauci, the US President’s Chief Medical Adviser, and the World Health Organisation insisted that facemasks were ineffective at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Now, just questioning their usefulness comes with a content warning.

Until recently, discussion of the possible lab leak origins of Covid-19 were labelled racist and censored on social media. Now official sources consider it a viable theory.

Changing narratives are expected when dealing with challenges like novel viruses. But due to the panic over extremism, the process of questioning and refining received wisdom through public discussion has been attenuated.

So how do we defeat political violence? As best we can tell, the views of most violent political actors are not that different from many mainstream actors. They believe many of the same things that people standing in local and national elections for familiar parties believe.

The difference is more prosaic: they have a personal taste for engaging in interpersonal violence which most of the public dislike. For example, the English Defence League (EDL) was defeated not through converting its supporters to substantially different belief systems but by having a strong police presence at their protests to minimise the possibility of violence. This made the events boring, rendering the EDL itself unattractive to its active supporters.

When it comes to the harm that political actors cause, it’s the powerful mainstream that sets state policy which must be kept in check. We have few tools available, but a culture of free inquiry and scepticism of authority combined with a pluralist civil society is our best hope.

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Nick Cowen is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.