We live in a time where people tend to gravitate towards a very clear and uncompromising point of view.
The rise of the far-right in nations like Australia and Poland is accompanied by the election of a populist right-winger in the U.S. Even here in the UK, we now have a clear left and right choice in the Labour and Conservative Party, which is markedly different to the not-so-distant years of Tony Blair and David Cameron, who battled over the political centre ground.
But why has the political axis become so wide? Are people just sick of bland, central politics or is something else shaping the way we think and vote?
A writer for the New York Times, Zeynep Tufekci, has hypothesised that social media might be edging us away from more moderate political views and towards extremes, and describes YouTube as ‘the Great Radicalizer’. She points out that having once watched a few pro-Donald Trump videos on YouTube for research purposes, the site began to recommend much more extreme material like white supremacist videos. She noted that the same thing happened at the other end of the political spectrum, where looking at left-of-centre views would result in anti-government conspiracy theories. Even watching videos on more trivial subjects like jogging would lead to YouTube pushing her towards marathon running. In short, whatever you’re watching, YouTube seems to want to direct you towards a more extreme version of it.
Tufekci’s story is anecdotal, but it does appear to be backed up by research. A study by the Wall Street Journal last month found that YouTube’s algorithms are directing people towards the ‘darkest corners’ of the internet.
Google-owned YouTube is the second most visited site on the internet and, among young people, is watched more often than television. What we have here is a hugely powerful and influential media taking extreme content and presenting it to them, or even recommending it to them. To take this material off YouTube altogether would be unnecessary, but the likes of Ku Klux Klan videos and 9/11 conspiracies were once something people would have had to go out of their way to get into. Today, the algorithms of popular sites seem to be nudging us towards them, helping radical viewpoints into the mainstream.
For International Women’s Day last week, Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black, the UK’s youngest MP at 23, gave a passionate and somewhat uncomfortable speech about the normalisation of sexism, saying misogynistic online abuse is a daily occurrence to her. Perhaps social media sites should be looking at what they can do to ensure that impressionable people are not misdirected and hate speech becomes what it should be – a shocking exception, not the norm.