The Threat of Online Radicalization

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By Saadat Rafin

Over the past few decades, the internet has become one of the largest cultural phenomena in recent history. Limitless reserves of information have become available at one’s fingertips, especially in developed countries like the U.S. As a result, people are now exposed to a plethora of ideas and cultures. There seems to be an online subculture for any interest, regardless of how niche it is. Name any ideology, and there will be a Twitter or Facebook community that harbors people who share these ideas. Finding a group to fit into has become much easier now, as the internet allows people who are looking for like-minded companions to gather and share their ideas. Though this has been a widespread development, we must take it with a grain of salt.

While it can have many positive influences and truth be told it does, it should come as no surprise that the internet is also a breeding ground for degeneracy. As people become disillusioned with society and the government, they tend to seek others who share the same worldview. They gather in small message boards and chat rooms to share stories of how society has let them down in one way or another.

A common feature that these groups share is a distrust in mainstream media. In order to gain the “truth,” which they believe they have been deprived of, they look to alternative forms of news, often ones that have no credibility. The rising anti-vax community is an example of one of these relatively small communities. Taking advantage of the disillusioned and feeble-minded, this community has spread at an alarming rate, using false facts and pseudoscience to garner support. The anti-vax community has historically been on the tamer side of these brainwashed communities (though that has become debatable as of late with the influence it has had on the COVID-19 lockdown protests). Unfortunately, there are much more sinister ideologies that have established platforms throughout the internet.

This brings me to the recent resurgence of political extremism. As recently as a decade ago, it was unthinkable to see Nazis marching the streets, showing pride in their heinous beliefs. But at the “Unite the Right” Rally in August 2017, scores of angry young men carried around the Nazi flag and anti-Semitic signs. The rise of these ideas has been affected by the same method of indoctrination that the anti-vax community uses: online exposure.

One victim of online extremist indoctrination, Caleb Cain, has shared his story. In a 2019 New York Times feature, Cain explained how he too fell into a rabbit hole of far-right content. Falling prey to these internet-savvy commentators’ tactics, Cain became a proponent of the alt-right. Countless other young men seem to share the same story.

It often starts with an edgy video on YouTube, perhaps something about race or gender politics. Aimless young men, mostly straight and white, are often sucked into a rabbit hole of far-right content, with each video more extreme than the last. These videos often take advantage of insecurities that foster within these young men. Those who feel emasculated by strong women, or any other form of women’s empowerment, often gravitate toward content that ridicules women. Those who feel as if their cultural or religious values are threatened often gravitate toward anti-immigrant content ridiculing other cultures.

With each click of these far-right content creators, the impressionable young man adopts heavily xenophobic and misogynistic beliefs. This process is dubbed “red-pilling” after the famous scene from the popular Matrix films—where Neo, the protagonist, is presented with a choice between a blue pill and a red pill. The blue pill would allow Neo to live his life the way he had been before, and the red pill would show him the “truth” of the world. Online proponents of right-wing extremism use the term as a buzzword to denote enlightenment.

One of the most disturbing, recent examples of how deadly online indoctrination can be took place last year in March at the Christchurch shooting. Twenty-eight year-old Brenton Tarrant began his descent into extremism through the online message board 4chan. Infatuated with the history of Christian struggle, Tarrant expressed his pride as a young white Christian man online. Tarrant was exposed to religious fundamentalist ideas and white nationalism. He spent months on these online message boards as their participants planted racist views in his mind, using his insecurities as a white man and ideas such as “white genocide” to give Tarrant fear and hatred toward non-whites. He ultimately took all of these ideas and created a 74-page anti-immigrant and Islamophobic manifesto, which he posted online and e-mailed to New Zealand authorities prior to the shooting.

This brings me to my next point: younger and younger audiences are starting to be brainwashed into this extremism. A prominent example of this is a YouTuber to whom I was first introduced in 2016: Lt Corbis. Lt Corbis, whose real name is Sophia, was a 12-year-old (now 16-year-old) YouTuber who made witty commentary videos on YouTube with run-of-the-mill edgy teenage humor, the kind we all know too well. Sophia seemed to be a regular “gamer” or “edgy teen,” and I enjoyed a few of her videos in 2016. Recently, curious about her whereabouts, I decided to google her name and the first video that popped up was one titled “The LtCorbis Racist Meltdown.” Confused as to what was going on, I watched the video and looked at some threads on Reddit and Twitter explaining the situation.

Screenshots were exposed of Sophia saying things such as “mass genocide of Muslims, a service to society,” and “[EXPLETIVE] MUSLIMS, [EXPLETIVE] THEM ALL, I WISH AN ATOMIC BOMB WOULD DROP ON THE MIDDLE EAST ALREADY.”

When confronted about these messages, Sophia would simply defend herself by saying that these messages were just “hyperbolic,” explaining that she does not believe there is anything wrong with what she said, as she “didn’t mean it literally” and that it “falls under free speech,” a favorite argument of hate speech defenders.

After some research, I had found that Sophia, like Cain and Tarrant, had also been brainwashed into these beliefs by online proponents. Some have speculated that the one responsible for her descent might be fellow content creator Vaporrub Boy, a “red-piller” who has outwardly supported the Christchurch shooter on his Twitter. Though the direct cause is not yet clear, Sophia has undoubtedly become a victim of online indoctrination.

A fellow Stuyvesant student of mine, Ian Saint-Germain, shares a similar story. “After Trump won the election, I was really disillusioned with politics,” Ian explained to me. “I was also obsessed with video games at the time and watched countless gaming channels that would occasionally paint feminists as out to destroy video games and whatnot. This was in 2016 when the SJW movement was kind of at its peak and YouTube was still very right-wing.”

Ian became an avid viewer of this misogynistic content, which slowly led him to right-wing creators such as Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Pearson, who began indoctrinating Ian into conservative ideologies. Fortunately for Ian, he managed to stop short of being radicalized.

Ian recognized when the ideas he was being exposed to were dangerous. “It wasn’t until they started making transphobic and Islamophobic comments that I realized they didn’t share my values. I realized I was radicalized a few months after I stopped watching political YouTube when a video popped up in my recommendations that sort of broke down the ‘Alt-Right Pipeline.’ I realized this happened to a lot of different people during 2016 and it probably would’ve gone way further for me if I was white,” he revealed.

Sophia and Ian are not the first—and will most likely not be the last—young victims to fall prey to online radicalization. As the world becomes much more polarized along socioeconomic and political lines, it seems as though a mutual understanding is impossible. There does not seem to be any shortage of racists and sexists online today, nor will there be one in the near future. What we do now to protect the youth of America, however, is important.

Many of these feeble-minded victims lack education and emotional support. A lot of children grow up with parents and are exposed to their bigoted ideologies from a young age. As a country, we need to have the proper education and support for these youths in the schooling system. More light needs to be shed on cases of online trolls and extremist content to prevent another impressionable young mind from falling victim to these heinous ideologies.