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Cliff Lampe: Social Media and the Media Ecology

Media Ecology
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<v ->Hi, this is Cliff Lampe from the School of Information.</v> And the topic of this video is social media and the media ecology. I think one of the mistakes people make when they think about the role of extremism in social media is usually when we say social media, a particular site pops into people’s heads, right? Whether it be Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok, usually people’s experiences of social media are shaped by their personal experience. And so they often underestimate the rich ecology of social media sites and how those social media sites affect other larger stream media that can exist. Social media fosters extremism by fitting into a complex media ecology. So what do I mean by that?
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Usually what happens when we have extremist groups is that members of that extremist group move from very fringe sites like 8kun or 4chan or sites like that and they organize on sites like Telegram and Parler and then they move to some sort of special interest enabler, right? Somebody who’s willing to give voice or to legitimize extremist viewpoints and get people to sympathize with those extremists viewpoints. From there, content can move from those enablers to more mainstream sites having been legitimized in a certain way and from those main stream sites they can move into mainstream media. Now, what’s important here is to understand a little bit about what does it mean to be an extremist.
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And this is not a binary, you’re not an extremist or not an extremist. What researchers or extremism have shown, is that really, you are in a kind of a spectrum of extremist beliefs and behaviors, right? So active supporters of an extremist group, whether it be somebody like the Proud Boys or somebody in the InCels movement, that’s a relatively small proportion of the total number of people who are sympathetic to an extremist viewpoint. So outside of active supporters, you have tacit supporters. You have people who are engaged. You have people who are curious. And then you have people who are antithetical to your message.
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For people trying to radicalize others, it’s important to know where their target audience is along this spectrum of radicalization. So their goal is to move more people from, for instance being curious, to being engaged with an extremist viewpoint. Now it’s not necessary that everybody who’s part of kind of an extremism community, be an active supporter. Often it’s enough to have a lot of tacit supporters or engaged believers who are able to and willing to kind of support your viewpoints in a variety of ways. So active supporters often constrain their activities to relatively small groups that operate on platforms that are either unusual for people to participate in.
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So 4chan for instance has a culture that most people would consider toxic and so therefore people who interact on it are relatively safe from what they would call normies, right? People who have not yet been radicalized into active support of an extremist viewpoint. Sites like Signal and Telegram are encrypted and so they allow groups to organize and to arrange action with one another in ways that even law enforcement in the country can’t really spy on, in the same way they can on public social media sites. And then sites like Gab and 4chan offer discussion and a radicalization of people. So it’s an important part of moving people from kind of the engaged believer to active support right?
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From tacit support to active support is a big part of that spectrum. There’s a whole other ecology of media sites that exist that help people move from curious to engaged, to supportive, right? So sites like Parler and MeWe, hosts radical conversations. They host a lot of types of conversations but they’re because they’re a strong free speech advocates, radical conversations can take place without threat of moderation. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are very important because there are still some of the largest social media sites and they allow for people to send their message and to basically recruit people, to be curious or to be engaged, right?
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Same with sites like TikTok, where videos are posted and shared and the sharing of these across multiple communities can collect people and get them invested and radicalized into the extremist viewpoint. And sites like Reddit, allow for groups to do all sorts of things. They can create their own groups to help people who are tacit supporters, or they can move into larger subreddits and create engaged believers of that particular extremist viewpoint. The key thing here of course is that, none of these extremist groups are using any one of these platforms, right? They’re using all of them to accomplish different goals of radicalization, right?
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They’re using each to target people along different parts of that spectrum that we showed earlier to kind of make a radicalized hole. The other problem we have with this media ecology is that information and media literacy messages have taken kind of a toxic twist with the rise of the internet. So Dana Boyd, who is a researcher at Data and Society, has talked about this. Her take is that, in the 1960s there was a huge counter-cultural revolution that changed the paradigm of how people in the West thought about information, right?
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Instead of depending so much on experts, the message was, if you had the right information and could do your own research, then you could tell what was true or not independent of experts. That was great information literacy for the past 40 years has really focused on highlighting individual efficacy in finding truth. We have told people just, if you have the right research skills, if you have access to good information, then you don’t need to depend on experts. You can tell what’s true or not. The problem with that, is then we created a tool called the internet that allowed people to post any information.
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So people came to believe that they could find information and didn’t need to depend on experts, but then they had Google and could find any information that supported their already held beliefs. So people are leaning on heuristics like confirmation bias and other types of biases to make decisions as opposed to what the information literacy proponents were hoping for, which was on careful, rational exploration of all the facts.
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These aspects both are kind of very rich media environment that people can move across freely and the fact that most people, especially in the United States, freely believe that they can make up their own decisions, so they can find platforms that support the beliefs they already hold, create a rich breeding ground for radicalization and for recruiting people into extremist groups.

Media Ecology

Professor Cliff Lampe discusses how social media fosters extremism in the large media ecology. Lampe explains how messages and ideas can move from fringe sites like 4chan to an enabler and then on to a more mainstream site. He describes how different parts of the social media ecosystem can move users from a tacit viewer to an engaged supporter along the spectrum of extremism. Extremists use a whole range of social media spaces in order to radicalize different groups in different ways.

Does understanding social media as an ecosystem change the way you think about extremism? How do you interact with the social media ecosystem? Are you on multiple sites? Are you an active poster or an observer?

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