By Niko Skaperdas
In recent years, there has been a global rise in right wing conservatism. In regards to America, it followed the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. With the ascension of Trump as a “conservative” icon, there has been a rise in radical conspiracy theories with subjects ranging from Jewish Space Lasers causing wildfires in California, to Democratic fueled media figures consuming the blood of infants and children in anti-aging rituals.
While these theories are baseless, harmful, and fueled by lies, they also show an insidious divide in the means by which Americans gather and disseminate information. These conspiracy theories are spread through various websites, message channels, and online forums. Many of these channels target young people, specifically boys aged 12 through 15. This process of radicalization that has been dubbed “The Alt-Right Pipeline” has its foundations in conservative politics. However, these ideas move beyond the scope of American Conservatism and into the realms of white supremacy, facism, extreme xenophobia, and deep rooted rejections of institutions.
In a discussion of any forms of youth radicalization, it is important to understand the methods of extremist groups no matter their geographic location or ideology, and how they are used to attract and radicalize young people. The UN reports two main categories as the cause of young people joining radical groups: (1) personal situations and (2) propaganda fueled answers to difficult questions. The former reason sees those living at or below the poverty line, in unstable domestic situations, and in close geographic proximity to extremist groups as the most vulnerable to radicalization. Factors like these leave wounds open that can be preyed on by extremist propaganda.
This leads into the effect propaganda has on vulnerable youth, often coming in the form of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The path down the Alt Right pipeline is gradual and can happen to any person with an internet connection. The pipeline generally follows this route:
- Watching of conservative speakers, liking of “dark humor” memes, usage of conservative leaning apps like iFunny
- Joining communities, forums, and message channels to share ideas
- Contributing to extremist ideas and the perpetuation of conspiracy theories
The outset of this process is actually founded in admiration of speech and debate. Figures like Ben Shapiro act as a gateway to radical ideology. These speakers are strong debaters which garners admiration from these young men. The gradual descent to extremism does not happen overnight but the more time spent within these ideological echo chambers, the more radicalized these boys can become. The SAGE journal for Youth and Society explains how extremist groups use social media to gather a massive audience, giving an “in group” to people who would otherwise feel as though they are excluded due to their beliefs. The creation of an “in group” like this also emphasizes a perception of marginalization.
This is extremely relevant in the United States. According to a 2019 American University study, American conservatives see themselves as a marginalized group facing severe societal discrimination. The idea generally follows this line of reasoning:
1. America was created on the work of white christian heterosexual men.
2. Men are being pushed out by immigrants and women in professional
and political spheres.
3. Society and politics have turned on men in favor of racial and ethnic minorities.
4. Men are being policed for ideology and language unfairly and people are too “politically correct”.
This line of logic is understandable once it is broken down to the core issue being men feel as though they are left behind by society. In the past, history, science, philosophy, art, politics (and basically everything else) was controlled in most parts of the world by white men. Studies out of McGill university show that these men have not adapted to a more accepting society and feel as though they have the power to still control all aspects of life. In many situations, these men feel entitled to power they have not earned as they were taught in their own exceptionalism due purely to the fact they were born — a large holdover of the humanist ideologies of the Renaissance. However, when they inevitably realize that they have no power in the larger scheme of the world, they become frustrated by their situation rather than internally reflecting on why they feel they deserve to be in power, as internal reflection is a major point of weakness in American men propagated by societal norms.
Understanding toxic masculinity helps to explain one of the foundations of the Alt Right movement in young american men. They have created an out group for themselves because they feel as though society is shunning them. The reality of the situation sees them in more positions of power, having the highest net worth, and shaping the majority of American policy. The Alt right movement facilitates this ideology by not only emphasizing these male fears of being pushed out but blaming it on racial minorities, the queer community, Jewish people, and immigrants. By uniting these boys under this imagined oppression they have created an in-group for themselves which then leads to a runaway effect of harmful ideas.
Another concerning point in these online communities is the creation of ideological echo chambers. Studies on political fragmentation on social media out of Oxford University found that these echo chambers could be the source of these extremely harmful conspiracy theories like QAnon and act as a serious threat to global democracy. They place a heavy distrust in the ability of the people to be aware of “the truth” in government. This ultimately leads to incidents like the burning of ballot boxes or the insurrection of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol. This runaway effect causes for conservative ideas to become extremist ideas which leads to the creation of Neo Nazis and the storming of the Capitol to disrupt a presidential election. Individuals become less and less sensitive to extreme ideas and then find themselves in criminal situations.
While this situation seems bleak, there is a glimmer of home in the terrifying events of the past year. The events of January 6 have fueled the removal of applications used by extremists like Parlor and the banning of individuals with extreme ideas from other social media platforms. These communities are now more difficult for young boys to stumble into but they could fuel the feeling of marginalization in extremist groups. However, the majority of Americans and more specifically parents see the events of the past year have encouraged a better understanding of what teenagers are looking at online. The youth trends of androgyny and the rejection of gender norms also help to protect some teenagers from this process of radicalization. For the 2020 election, young people politically mobilized better than they ever have, showing a real trend of understanding politics and being up to date on trustworthy news.