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Allan BonnerWhen General Edwin A. Walker was fired, the evidence against him was very clear. He had been distributing right-wing John Birch Society (JBS) pamphlets implying that his President – John F. Kennedy – was a traitor. General Walker fought with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower over school integration too. The John Birch Society accused Eisenhower of being a communist.

Fast forward to today, and the evidence of conspiracies and extremism is not as clear, although pamphlets aren’t as popular as blogs, Tweets, websites, YouTube videos, and the general detritus of Web 2.0.

A longstanding debate about the effects of exposure to offensive material is being revived. Recall the studies of violence in cartoons and the banning of cartoon characters hitting each other over the head – sure to cause serious injury or death in real life. At least most cartoons were watched by small groups of kids and possibly parents in a social situation.

Pornography is more the analogy. It’s consumed alone, whether in a plain brown envelope or on the web. Extremist and violent material is consumed in the same way online – alone.

American researchers James Hawdon, Colin Bernatzky and Matthew Costello have had their research published by Oxford University Press. They link “dissatisfaction with major social institutions and economic disengagement … with exposure to violent materials online.” They note that “violent extremism … is a national security threat.”

Protestor radical

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The soldiers who received the JBS pamphlets also had information from friends, family, and the news media to moderate. Present-day web users are alone and use fewer sources of information. The web is also the gateway to news, or what people think are reliable news sources today. The more time online, “… the greater the odds of encountering hate materials …” Plus, those with more extensive online social networks, such as Facebook friends, are more likely to be exposed.

Some content may not be hateful, but the unedited comments are often a source of extremism. Adding strangers to social networks or interacting anonymously is “linked to cyber victimization.”

The term “flocking” refers to ties among those with similar world views. “Feathering” means positive reinforcement for group views. Filter bubbles mirror extreme views back to the web user. These interactions are especially powerful for economically marginalized people. They want an explanation for their situation, and the web gives them conspiracy theories, members of religions, cultures, and ethnic groups.

The closed loop bubble makes extreme attitudes seem normal. This should be no surprise considering that the largest segment of a group studied (31.9 percent) spent three to five hours a day online. About 20 percent reported they were “very close” to an online community.

Solutions? As in the days of the JBS pamphlets, having a stake in society and multiple sources of information seem to moderate behaviour. It’s surely obvious that exposure to material that advocates violence and extremism is likely a precursor to it. But researchers point out that there’s “no single pathway to radicalization.” They may have uncovered one, and even if not, isn’t there something better to do three to five hours a day?

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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