Anyone who spends time on social media can sense that extremists view it as a way to influence others to their point of view, but a recent study had some surprising results with regard to how right-wing extremists and conservatives interact on Twitter.
The real surprise came almost accidentally, when studying the content of the tweets members of the dataset sent out, with a substantial amount of it linked to the conservative movement in the United States and the Republican Party. Among the most popular hashtags used by those included in the dataset included “#tcot,” or top conservatives on Twitter; “#teaparty,” and “#gop.” The study also looked at the links these users sent out, categorized into mainstream, content-neutral, alternative, and extremist categories. More than half of the alternative links these users sent out were also to conservative websites, such as World Net Daily and Brietbart.com.
The authors of the study determined that the usage seemed to be “driven more by white nationalists feeling an affinity for conservatism than by conservatives feeling an affinity for white nationalism.” They were also quick to note that the data were pulled during a period of time surrounding the Republican National Convention, potentially providing a boost in references to the GOP. However, a comparison group — composed of left-wing anarchists — did not yield similar results linking them to progressive ideals or the Democratic Party.
The study's authors concluded that there is an opportunity for people committed to combating extremism online to influence the extremists' sphere of influence away from extreme views. I am not quite as optimistic. The right wing has spent the past four years learning how to game social media to push their own message across, but it doesn't appear to me that they are particularly interested in suppressing or shifting the extremist message, particularly as long as the Glenn Becks, Breitbart.coms and World Net Daily-type sites are out there to do it for them.
Alex Jones' Infowars site landed in the top 10 sites for extremists too, which is unsurprising given the rapid proliferation of conspiracy and extremist propaganda being mainstreamed these days. The SPLC recently reported a spike in the number of patriot and militia groups formed, presumably in response to the re-election of President Obama. Current efforts by the NRA to co-opt these groups in order to defeat reasonable gun control measures will likely yield even more new recruits, and more violence.
Capping four years of explosive growth sparked by the election of America’s first black president and anger over the economy, the number of conspiracy-minded antigovernment “Patriot” groups reached an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012, while the number of hard-core hate groups remained above 1,000. As President Obama enters his second term with an agenda of gun control and immigration reform, the rage on the right is likely to intensify.
The furious reaction to the Obama administration’s gun control proposals is reminiscent of the anger that greeted the passage of the 1993 Brady Bill and the 1994 ban on assault weapons supported by another relatively liberal Democrat — Bill Clinton. The passage of those bills, along with what was seen by the right as the federal government’s violent suppression of political dissidents at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the early 1990s, led to the first wave of the Patriot movement that burst into public consciousness with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups in that era peaked in 1996 at 858, more than 500 groups fewer than the number active in 2012.
It seems that the current fashion for patriot and militia groups is the effort to mainstream conspiracy theories that have been underground for years.
Another factor driving the expansion of the radical right over the last decade or so has been the mainstreaming of formerly marginal conspiracy theories. The latest and most dramatic example of that may be the completely baseless claim that Agenda 21 — a United Nations sustainability plan that was signed by President George H.W. Bush but has no mandatory provisions whatsoever — is part of a plan to impose socialism on America and strip away private property rights.
That claim has been pushed heavily by, among others, the John Birch Society, a conspiracist Patriot organization that was exiled from the conservative movement a half century ago after claiming President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist agent (see story, p. 24)."Last year, the Republican National Committee passed a plank opposing Agenda 21 and describing it as a “destructive and insidious scheme” to impose “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.” The state of Alabama passed a law barring any policies traceable to Agenda 21 without “due process.”
This can be attributable to Jones, Glenn Beck, and other wingnuts who have decided the best way to push their agendas is to join together where they can agree, which appears to be on crazy conspiracy theories that aren't based in any fact. But it doesn't stop with them. Fox News, Forbes, and other "mainstream" media outlets picked up on the ridiculous fearmongering about the DHS ammunition purchases with gusto, fueling and legitimizing the hate groups which hatched that rumor.
Based upon examples like that, I would submit that the authors of the social media study should revisit their research and perhaps expand it to see whether their initial conclusion should be reversed; that is, the extremists have undue influence on the mainstream.