Archive for March 11th, 2010
I’ve thought of a title for the paper: “Understanding the Proliferation of Extremism on the Web”.
This week I have been reading Introduction to Social Psychology (2nd ed.) by Hewstone, Stroebe and Stephenson. It is a compilation of theories from multiple authors relating to large-scale social psychology.
I have selected a few concepts from the book which are relevant to extremism on the Web. I have also decided that to understand extremism on the web, the process needs to be split into two main sections: why people join extremist groups and how they behave within these groups.
Perhaps surprisingly, extremism on the web is both pro- and anti-social. From the individual (socio-psychological) point of view it is pro-social, joining these groups is a way to meet like minded people, converse and make friendships. From the sociological p.o.v. it is anti-social, as the motives for joining these groups are almost always to persecute others.
Motives for affiliation – why do people join these groups?
- Social Comparison Theory
- People want to compare themselves to others to confirm their attitudes.
- Buffer Effect of Social Support
- People who feel supported are less affected by stressful events, having social support (especially by people who share your ideals) is an elemental component of ‘happiness’
- Loneliness / Isolation
- Having an extreme view can lead to loneliness in one’s geographical social group
Why do people behave differently in these online groups?
- Diffusion of Responsibility
- There is a reduced sense of social responsibility when one is part of a group of people who are behaving in the same way. Examples of this behaviour are seen in the offline world in collective violence, for example mobs and looting that occurs because a large number of people partake. This is closely related to deindividuation.
- Defined by Leon Festinger as “the situation where anti-normative behavior is released in groups in which individuals are not seen or paid attention to as individuals.” Simply put, deindividuation is immersion in a group to the point at which the individual ceases to be seen as such. [courtesy of wikipedia]. This is used to explain collective violence such as mob fights etc.
- Social Influence / Conformity
- This has been explained in my earlier blog post. Many people will conform in fear of retaliation or rejection. This is also true of online groups and can explain why people with moderate views who join extremist groups could develop extreme views themselves.
- Freedom of a Safe Environment
- This relates heavily to my last post. People’s behaviour in social situations is governed by learned responses and reactions to certain cultural signs. Online there are no such signs, one reaction to this is to treat the Web as a free space where ‘anything goes’. This topic also relates to the diffusion of responsibility in group membership: ‘if every one else is doing it, it must be OK’.
- Group Polarisation
- A group may start out with relatively tame intentions / beliefs, but through polarisation, innovation and compliance more extreme views may proliferate.
- Lack of Social Responsibility
- People behave in certain ways because they have a social responsibility to. These responsibilities are outlined in all religious texts, as well as throughout primary education and family upbringing. The Web offers a space without this social responsibility, without punishment. This may lead people to ‘lash out’ and develop behavioural traits that would not have been expressed in the offline world. This behaviour may not even be related to the individual’s personality, but be a product of sudden freedom of expression in an anonymous environment.
Last week I read selected chapters of Thinking Sociologically by Zygmunt Bauman. Although I have not read as much as I plan to yet, I have picked up some interesting and relevant topics, especially from the chapter “Nature and Culture”. I have selected some quotes and will explain why they are relevant:
“The environment of my and anybody else’s individual life-processes consists in no small measure of other individuals with motives and purposes of their own – and thus the ‘normative regulation’ of individual motives and patterns of conduct is an important factor in the overall regularity and predictability of the environment.” pg 146
Here Bauman explains that one’s social norms and behaviour is governed mainly by the others that we observe. Individuals regulate their behaviour in a social context by the behaviour of others within that context. In the area of extremism on the web this partially explains why people within extremist groups share a relatively monotonous behaviour pattern.
“… most of our behaviour is learned. We memorize those of our past actions which proved successful: brought the desired effect, the pleasure, approval and praise of people around us.” pg 147
Similar to the statement above; Bauman states that we behave in a way that is approved of in the current social context.
“If I confuse things, and behave in a way suitable for one context in circumstances which this conduct does not fit, I am likely to feel embarrassed or guilty … I may feel ashamed – as if I’ve let out some secret truth about my ‘real self’” pg 148
Here, Zauman shows that we learn separate behaviour patterns for different social situations; for instance one would not behave in the same way while having a formal meeting as they would while meeting for drinks with close friends. These are two individual social settings where the expected behaviour has been learned from personal experience and shared experience through media such as television and the web.
“culturally trained individuals are structured – that is ‘articulated’, with the help of oppositions, into separate social contexts calling for distinctive conduct and separate patterns of behaviour suitable for distinctive social contexts – and the two articulations [are isomorphic].” pg 150
So our structured behaviour patterns are enforced with positive and negative responses until we meet the expected behaviour for the situation. Online there is little enforcement of social expectations of behaviour, web 2.0 sites allow communal filtering, commenting and rating which helps this, but extremist groups reside in corners of the web which remain unchecked such as private newsgroups, forums or IRC channels which can have restricted access. Here there are no pointers to expected behaviour patterns in the wider context, but expected behaviour is judged by the other members of these closed groups, creating a self-maintaining extremist community.
“The device which secures this .. correspondence between structures of social reality and of culturally regulated behaviour is called the cultural code.” pg 150
Bauman goes on to say that this code is represented by signs: visual, olfactory, colours, dress, tones of voice etc. It is clear that almost all of these signs are not present in the online world, so one must transfer one’s offline cultural code to the online space. This may or may not be a conscious decision, some may consciously decide to ignore previously known code and treat the online world as one where ‘anything goes’. This will allow people who have extremist views but do not express them in the offline world to speak freely online.