Social Media and the Political Radicalisation of your Relatives

About the Author: Raphaëlle Lhuissier got her bachelor’s degree in International Relations at European School of Political and Social Sciences in Lille (France) and now studying at the Master level International Relations. She is interested in geopolitics and current affairs.

Have you ever wondered how and why people supposedly close to you, whether a family member or a friend, take an extreme political turn overnight, and you never saw it coming? You might discover it in the middle of a conversation about upcoming elections, or at a family meal. If you have any concern for the political future of your country, it will probably hurt.

Why does it hurt though?

Mainly because we often bond better with people “like us”, it then raises the question of this relative being maybe not that much your special one anymore. The other thing is that if someone you value and identify to, could turn extreme so quietly, then it may happen to others of your relatives, to you, or to anyone presenting the same background (social class, wage, place of living, education, …). If you recognise yourself in this situation, you should know that a priori, it’s not always a lost cause, there are indeed ways to react to avoid conflict with your loved ones, and even to make them question their sudden political commitment. Living in a “politicalized” environment, it happened to me several times already, and this is how I learned to react.

The first thing to do is to identify the sources and causes of this anger that most of them present.

Have you heard them talking about new friends, group of people or associations they joined lately? The human need of approval is a major feature of political radicalization. It is in this case, closely linked to the need of belonging, being recognised by either a certain group or more broadly something bigger than them. The need of belonging is absolutely normal, and we are all feeling it at some point, as Aristotle said: “man is by nature a social animal”(1). Hence, it is originally from this will of belonging that individuals get closer to certain groups, strongly encouraged by peer pressure and group dynamics, they are influenced into adopting specific ways to perceive the world. This is the most classic way to be dragged into a close-minded and critical-sense-lacking ideology, it existed way before social medias and virtual interactions.

How social media enhance this social process through the use of algorithms and targeted advertisements?

"There are bad people doing bad things on the Internet, whether it's QAnon or white supremacists. The problem is not just that Facebook, YouTube and other social networks allow it on their platform, but that they amplify it," says Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Indeed, when we know that modern sociology rather uses social medias’ quantitative statistics because it’s a more relevant way to get to know people than declarative surveys (2), we may wonder to what extent our data is collected and used to target us with specific posts and advertisements. Our use of social medias is both regulated by and providing information for algorithms (3). Then, this social group dynamic I was talking about before happens, but in the virtual world, that we often neglect to be a form of reality. Everyone has a saying on social media, Twitter or Facebook for example, are very much used to express political opinions. Facebook is designed for communities even; people can join private groups organized around specific interests and hobbies. Even though these interests are primarily neutral (as they are hobbies for example), they get political quick when they are typical of a social group. Inside these groups, often promoted through “suggests”, the social dynamics are even better to observe, because people express themselves much easier behind their screen and their reactions are often more emotional. It may thus explain how some of your relatives are getting politically pretty angry overnight, often through extreme positions on migration, climate, gender equality, security, … One relevant case study is the community of Incels (standing for involuntary celibacy), an online subculture based on heterosexual men struggling to find a partner and therefore developing a huge hate over women. This idea might sound ridiculous but as you might guess the Incels are obviously not part of this community the day they enter the internet, it’s a long process of hours spent on online forums governed by precise algorithms. The political drift for Incels is pretty violent as witnessed from the several attacks against women that have been going on since early 90’s, the perpetrators putting themselves as ‘martyr’ for whatever they call their cause. Incels are even starting to be considered as a new form of terrorism in the UK (4). Consequently, social media are to be considered as a real threat in terms of political radicalization and the use of critical mind, not because people lack the latter, but it can be very tricky when it comes to questioning the reasons for one’s opinion.

Now that you’ve identified the sources of this extreme drift, how to react?

The first thing is to maintain relationships with this person, trying your best not to isolate him or her even though it’s tempting. Indeed, according to an initiative led by the GCTF (Global Counterterrorism Forum) (5), you should avoid any behavior that make a person feeling left on the side, because it would enhance the feeling of not being understood that political extreme often nourish. The second advice I would give from my personal experience is to always keep an active listening and show compassion to the person, because if they feel listened, they will be prompt to listen to you too. Then, when you feel that you have their attention, try to avoid the clash of opinion by first, not adopting the other extreme position and secondly, adapt your discourse with concepts that are familiar to the person, use their own argument to make them cast doubt on what they believe. The general idea is to remain calm and avoid conflict as much as you can, by valuating in your discourse the relationship more than the clash of opinions.

Keep in mind that there is no miracle, sometimes it’s too late for you to do anything about your relative’s political radicalization, but it’s okay, you’ve done your best.

(1) Aristotle, Politics, 1253a