Extremist acts can make people feel important, give them a sense of purpose, and provide them with a narrative that explains why everything seems so awful. They also give them a sense of community and support. The more you feel embraced by a network of people, Kruglanski says, the more motivated you are to embrace their narrative, albeit excessively. Often, he says, people don’t invest in the group they’re joining until they realize how extreme it really is.
Berger says social media increases feelings of uncertainty. He says this is partly due to the fact that ideas can now spread widely and widely with very little effort, almost instantly, which can destabilize.
“In the past, when the transfer of ideas was slower, ideas had a chance to improve as they were conveyed. That sometimes creates a kind of moderating effect,” Berger says. “With social media, ideas move so fast that it’s unlikely to be truly measured. Even the most extreme ideas can spread incredibly quickly.”
Social media has also made it easier for people to radicalize because they can easily find people who share any extremist views they may have and will gladly invite them to take action. Someone who doesn’t meet like-minded people in the small town he lived in years ago can easily find a community online and become even more radical.
“Social media has radically changed the way people communicate,” Berger says. “It has radically changed the kinds of ideas people are exposed to.”
Research has shown that social media exacerbates political polarization, often pushing users to watch more extreme content, and helping extremists organize and coordinate their efforts. Social media also has positive effects in helping activists organize and connecting people in beneficial ways, but the negative effects and uses are significant.
“Combined with networking support, hidden conspiracy narratives, a sense of uncertainty, a sense of lost importance – these elements create a combustible mix that can be illuminated and lead to radicalization and radical action,” says Kruglanski.
Because of this, many people feel uncertain and insignificant, and social media is teeming with disinformation and extremist groups that will invite them to take action. That’s part of it. The more obvious but important aspect of this is the role of political leaders in America and a Republican Party itself that has become more extreme.
“We have people who are top leaders of a right-wing party who are genuinely willing to express and support positions in American politics that are much more radical than what used to be the norm,” Berger says. “They create a structure of permission for people to talk about racism and violence in ways that may have previously been outside the realm of civic discourse.”
Thomas Zeitzoff, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, says the Republican Party has embraced extremist figures who would have been cast aside in the past and are now largely controlled by them.