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Cliff Lampe: Using Social Media to Foster Extremism

The Three Characteristics
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<v ->Hi everybody, my name is Dr. Cliff Lampe</v> and I’m here at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. What I’m gonna talk to you today about is extremist groups, and especially what role does social media play in fostering extremist groups and allowing them to continue.
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First, I’d like to start off with a brief discussion of what is social media and how it plays a role here. So when we talk about social media, what makes something social media or not social media? I talk about three characteristics. One is that they’re all dependent on user generated content, that they’re empty unless basically users put in pictures or videos or anything like that. The second important feature is that they’re direct user to user interaction, right? They enable basically you to interact with other people without some gatekeeper, and editor, a moderator or something acting as a barrier between you and that person.
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And that’s not to say that some communities or online social media sites are not moderated, it just means to say that the default action in social media is user to user. And then the third thing, and what I’m gonna dig into a little bit is that a social media site is actually a bundle of applications, right? We tend to think of Twitter as being one thing or Facebook as being one thing, but really these sites are a whole set of things that act together. So what do I mean by that? To kind of get nerdy geeky on you a second, there’s a term we use in my field called an “affordance”, right?
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And affordances exists in the interaction between an individual’s subjective perception of utility and the objective qualities of a technology. What does that mean? That means that anytime we have any technology, any tool, that tool basically has features that our perception perceives as affording different types of action. So what’s an example? A door handle affords the action of turning it, right? A chair basically looks like it should be something you sit in, right? Good technology signals to the person how it’s intended to be used, and a lot of design is about how do we get a piece of technology to actually afford a particular type of action?
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Social media is really just a set of features, a whole set of individual design decisions that somebody, somewhere has made each of which affords all types of individual and social consequences. Right, so when you look at a site like Instagram, you know that there’s the heart feature, right? So what does that heart button afford, right? How do you know what it does and how do you know what it means when you click that button? That’s the meaning of affordance, right? Each of these sites affords different types of social interactions, and in doing so it enables basically social processes to happen. So what’s the role of that in social media, why the social media matter for any of that?
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Let me go into a few specific affordances that exist in social media, and we can see what that means. So one important affordance of social media is broadcast, right? It’s the ability to send out messages to large groups of people. Now, before social media, broadcasters could do this but those were held by relatively small number of fairly elite folks. Now, anybody relatively, cheaply, economically can send out big groups of messages to large sets of people, and some set of those people are gonna respond back.
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This is something that’s been very important for extremist groups because it allows them to basically send messages to large groups of people and be able to find folks who will have the same set of beliefs that they do. Another affordance of social media is the ability for identity control. So as you know, famously, people on social media can control who and what they think they say they are, right? So the famous cartoon is on the internet, “Nobody Knows I’m a Dog”, and while we’ve moved beyond that to relatively deep sets of profiles and social media, it’s still true that you can create all sorts of identities for yourself in social media and craft identities to meet a certain cause.
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So if you see a group like QAnon, for instance, nobody knows the identity of Q because that person’s able to control what identity signals they send out. This is something that’s fairly new about social media, not that we haven’t had synonymous actors in the past or that people have hidden by masks or things like that, but the scale at which we can do this on social media, allowing everybody to basically create their own persona online really changes how we interact with one another. Another important affordance in social media when we think about the kind of rich set of things that can occur with extremist groups is the ability to post multimedia content, right?
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We can post messages that are texts that are images that are videos that are sounds, in fact, some of the newest social media platforms are audio discussion channels like Clubhouse. The ability to post such rich media and such a variety amount of media allows people to basically become their own media strategists. Now what we see with extremist groups they become incredibly media savvy, they know how to use specific features of video, versus, text to create certain types of persuasive messages. The more control you have over multimedia, the more you’re able to tailor messages to specific targeted audiences that you’re trying to reach.
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Another important aspect of social media is the idea of annotation. This is the ability to like, love, hate, rate whatever you’re gonna do with other people’s content, and that feeds into how we interact with that information. And finally, algorithmic curation. This is basically the idea that we all know about which is that you’re not seeing all the content that appears on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, there’s an algorithm behind the scenes that’s making choices about what you should and shouldn’t see, and the algorithm is deciding who sees what across social media.
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This has been shown to really help some extremist groups in that the algorithm unintentionally pushes some extremist messages, especially if the media group is able to manipulate what kinds of cues you put on it. So if you’re able to upvote something or like something, the algorithm will see that as popular and push it into other people’s viewing streams more readily.
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So all of these tools are great in a lot of instances, the social media sites and groups that these tools help support have offered support for new parents, they’ve offered support for people suffering from medical conditions were important for people who were new immigrants to a country or to a city, all of these have been great positive stories over time. But the tool also isn’t really able to tell what’s a good actor, versus, a bad actor, so the exact same set toolbox of features or set of affordances that we think are important can help foster white supremacist groups or white nationalist groups in the exact same way they foster neighborhood bake sale groups.
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The tools are useful for forming groups and it doesn’t necessarily matter what content is that group is in. So social media has been a boon for a lot of extremist groups in the same way that it’s helped groups, nationally, organize and create communities for themselves.

The Three Characteristics

Professor Cliff Lampe discusses the three characteristics of social media: content is user generated, user interact directly with other users, and social media is a bundle of services. Lampe dives into the affordances of social media which include how anyone can broadcast messages to large groups, users can craft their identities and hide who they really are, and the ability to post multiple forms of media. The tools are useful for forming groups but do not discern whether that group is a group of new parents or a white supremacy militia group.

How does understanding the affordances of social media that help foster extremism cause you to reflect on your own social media presence?

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