Extremism on the Web – Introduction to Social Psychology   no comments

Posted at 3:21 pm in Psychology,Sociology

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.
  • 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.

Written by Simon Hearne on March 11th, 2010

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