The Internet is Radicalizing Us

As a kid of the 90’s, I often heard the adults around me (especially relatives) discussing politics and often not agreeing with each other on every single point. They were still able to respect each other and be together without hard feelings. Thanksgiving was tense. Attitude polarization, where group members’ attitudes tend to become more radical after speaking with likeminded people about the issue, and group polarization, where groups tend to become more radical in response to the specific inclinations of their members, are two related effects that can often be seen today. The ultimate goal, whether conscious or not, is groupthink, where the group thinks as a whole in order not to allow for any critical or skeptical voices. Logic and facts are often discarded if they do not line up with the group’s belief systems. Belief in conspiracy theories are common.

One example are incels. Men have always chased women and seen it as a boon or bruise to their ego depending upon women’s responses to them. There is nothing new about this, and a much lighter attitude used to be taken about the matter, with many romcoms being made about the subject. However, the incel movement, begun and strengthened online, is something much more sinister. Men who feel they have not gotten the attention from women they deserve claim they are “involuntarily celibate” and as a result, resentment towards women has grown. Where in the past, a man might have sought to improve himself in order to appeal to the opposite sex, the narrative has been changed to one that bashes and dehumanizes women. There have even been violent attacks carried out by those who proudly wear the “incel” title.

Another example are my parents, lifelong conservative Republicans. They have never been anti-vax. I got all of my vaccines growing up. And vaccines were not considered controversial (other than by a very few on the fringes), or even as political in nature. Vaccines save lives. We got vaccinated. No more thought than that was put into the issue. However, with the rise of Trump and anti-science rhetoric in general, my parents (my dad being a physician) have both decried the Covid shot. My mom, who already is in ill health, has decided to forgo getting it at all. She spends a lot of time on Facebook and follows many conservative pages and has many conservative “friends” posting anti-vax propaganda for her to read. In a different, earlier life she would have rejected all of it and chalked them up to being crazies. In this new world, where even adults are now subject to peer pressure via the internet and where anything in typed form is inherently imbued with legitimacy, the lines are much blurrier. Facts have been reduced to opinions, which can be rejected by will, and opinions have risen to the position facts used to hold.

Although I realize the two-party system is not ideal, I remember a time when there were only small differences between Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, those days are long past. Now each seems to have more radicalized fringes, and those fringes seem to be much more heavily populated. Bipartisanship is never the goal anymore, with those who even mention it being seen as soft and vacillatory.

Even I have been the victim (participant?) of radicalization. I find it harder and more uncomfortable than ever to teeter between two extremes or even to recognize extremes. I have to constantly question myself. Does this make sense? Is it backed by facts and logic, or simply emotion? Do I really believe this, or do I just want to feel completely aligned with those who do? If I stop believing this or start believing something different, am I scared I will lose something or somebody?