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Basic Social Theory on Extremism

By Rose Cunningham

(Please note that this article is based on my research and understanding of base socio-political theory, and contains many generalisations.)



Remember when everything was “unprecedented”, and they used the word “unprecedented” an “unprecedented” amount of times? I won’t use it again, but here's the deal: our modern world has been defined by instability and change like never before, and if you expect that it makes it very hard for any kind of stable political movement to rise to the top of society - to some extent, you’re right. This said, the change allows for major players to come to the front - for all of the wrong reasons.

While I won’t bore you with the detailed aspects of social theory, throughout history, empires and kingdoms have fallen amidst change because as humans, we don’t like uncertainty. This happens because when civilians become frustrated with instability or try to grapple with other missing factors, for example, a lack of food in Great Depression Era Germany, or lack of resources in post-WWI Russia, we look for solutions - fast ones - completely different from anything we’ve tried before. Whilst this isn’t what happens every time, it’s a fairly consistent pattern.

Let’s look at why various factors increase the chances of extremist revolutions.

Distrust in the Government

Extremist movements often centre either on distrust of the government, or the desire to disrupt it. Portraying politicians as self-interested, oppressive, or influenced by external forces, the causes behind these organisations are designed to upend society. This is especially the case in a time where there is already some level of growing unease as a result of perceived government inaction on various matters, such as inflation and social welfare. When people feel that their concerns are not being addressed and that those in power are not working for their best interests, they become more susceptible to extremist narratives that offer simplistic solutions and scapegoats. Sometimes these narratives aren’t immediately recognisable as extremist, or the content being provided is designed to act as a pathway to more extremist viewing on social media. This dynamic can lead to a vicious cycle of increasing polarisation and further erosion of democratic norms and order.

Economic Insecurity and Inequality

Economic insecurity and inequality are significant risk factors for embracing extremist narratives. Extremist groups offer simplistic solutions to complex socio-economic issues, appealing to those feeling "left behind" economically. The widening gap between the haves and have-nots, coupled with the perception of a rigged system, can fuel resentment and a sense of injustice. When people struggle to meet their basic needs and see little prospect for upward mobility, it is to an extent understandable why a promise to upend the existing order and redistribute wealth is appealing, which is a major part of why many people believe the communist and socialist movements make a lot of sense in theory, especially to members of lower classes. However, communism doesn’t work in practice, but Australia is somewhat close to a socialist economy - which hits a good balance between the pros of both economic theories. This allows for greater wealth distribution and access to healthcare, and should not be seen to perpetrate the same evils as communism.

Spread of Extremist Rhetoric Online

Online platforms and social media play a significant role in amplifying extremist narratives. Extremist groups use memes, jokes, and "sh*tposting" to draw people into their culture. A study found that 60% of people exposed to extremist content online went on to engage with more radical material. Countering online radicalization is challenging, but some strategies include targeted counter-narratives and improved content moderation.

The internet has revolutionised the way information is shared and consumed, but it has also provided a fertile ground for the spread of extremist ideologies. Extremist groups have become adept at using online platforms to reach a wide audience, often targeting vulnerable individuals who may be struggling with personal or social issues which, as aforementioned, extremist groups believe that they can solve. The anonymity and lack of face-to-face interaction can make it easier for people to engage with and share extremist content. Examples here include the way that Donald Trump used Twitter to incite violence on Capitol Hill, and how Andrew Tate would play on the insecurities of traditionalist men and young boys to create a dangerous perception of the gender roles in modern society.

Algorithmic Bubbles

If you don’t use social media, or haven’t heard the term before, “Algorithmic Bubbles” are what occurs for social media companies to create a perfectly synthesised stream of content. This takes into account all of the content that one has seen and engaged with recently on social media, and curates other aspects like it. By doing this, our social media feeds show us only what we agree with or are aligned with, or things it thinks we will like based on this. The trouble with this is that if one engages with content that falls on one side of the political spectrum, then it is a short path to being shown more extreme content of that same variety. Often this is quite comforting when we seek stability or at least a feeling of it, but when the feelings run dry or we stop interacting with the content, another attempt is made to get us back on, and this is where extremist content can be fed onto our feed (I’ve attached an incredibly interesting video about this to the bottom of this article). Over time, our gradual separation from opposing or alternate views, means that people will react more strongly if they are ever shown the other content. For this reason, those Algorithmic Bubbles can be quite destructive of human compassion and understanding.

Rise of New Extremist Political Powers

Extremist political parties and movements typically exploit social discontentment to gain power. They offer simplistic solutions and scapegoats for complex societal issues, leading to further polarisation and erosion of democratic norms. In Europe, far-right parties have seen significant gains in recent elections, with the “Fratelli d’Italia” or “Brothers of Italy”, the most right-wing party in Italy, winning about 45% of the vote in the most recent election. The rise of extremist political powers poses a significant threat to democratic institutions and values. These parties often seek to undermine the rule of law, restrict civil liberties, and scapegoat minority groups for societal problems, such as blaming BIPOC people for taking the jobs of white citizens. Their success can embolden other extremist groups and lead to a normalisation of intolerance and hate.



Now I am not at all saying that there is no place for varying ideas in society, if anything, they allow for an increased awareness about the world and for a more well-rounded education, which helps to put together a more cohesive worldview. However, it is when the way these views are communicated, and the actions and messages which they lead to get out of hand and potentially dangerous, that we have a problem. Addressing the root causes of social discontentment, such as economic inequality and lack of representation, in addition to providing education and dealing with content on social media is crucial to counter the appeal of extremist ideologies. Responsible political discourse, media literacy, and inclusive policies all help strengthen social cohesion and resilience and build a future where extremism can’t be fostered.



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