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What are the consequences of the internet’s growing role as a force for radicalization?
That question gained greater urgency this month after the shooting that killed 22 people in El Paso. The killer, authorities say, gave every indication of being radicalized online into white nationalist terrorism.
It’s a question that we’ve spent the last few years trying to answer. It has led us to the world’s furthest reaches, the internet’s darkest corners and the heart of Silicon Valley.
Wherever we looked, the rate and consequences of online radicalization seemed far beyond what we’d anticipated, and were growing fast. So, in January, we decided to ask the question in a different way: Could the consequences of online radicalization go beyond a few extremists and, in ways that might be less obvious but perhaps just as consequential, radicalize large swaths of an entire society?
After all, just about everyone uses social media. And the ways it incubates extremism and misinformation apply universally.
So rather than look at social media’s role in inspiring one shooter, provoking one riot or turning one community against itself, we looked for a country where we might try to understand, as holistically as we could, social media’s impact on every facet of life.
We picked Brazil.
Brazil’s politics have experienced a sudden, world-shaking shift, with Jair Bolsonaro, the once-fringe, far-right politician, becoming president this year. Years of political corruption crises had undoubtedly played a role. But something else was clearly happening there.
And Brazil is the second-largest market for YouTube, after the United States. YouTube has not received as much scrutiny as, say, Facebook. But experts say the platform has the power to radicalize people and communities in ways we are only beginning to understand.
“From my perspective, YouTube is perhaps the most troubling platform we have out there right now,” Danah Boyd, founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, told us.
What we found in Brazil went far beyond anything we had anticipated, with important — and sometimes disturbing — lessons for us all. Our findings appear as an article in today’s paper and as a half-hour episode this week of The Times’s new TV show, “The Weekly.”
As we were finishing our story, we heard news of the attack in El Paso, with its echoes of the March attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, also by a white nationalist apparently radicalized online. It reminded us that, just as radicalization can affect societies broadly, so can the harm it causes.
Statistically, mass shootings make up only a small fraction of America’s thousands of gun deaths; attacks with clear ideological motivations, such as the white supremacy and violent misogyny that have become hallmarks of online radicalization, are a mere fraction of those.
But they cause harm that goes far beyond the impact of bullets on flesh. One study found widespread trauma symptoms in the Norwegian public after the 2011 Norway attacks, particularly among those who had been physically near the attacks or felt a psychological identification with the 77 victims. Other research found a similar effect among New Yorkers after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mass shootings that target the quotidian places where people go about their lives — schools, universities, places of worship, concerts, shopping centers and exercise studios — have systematically stripped away the sense that anywhere is safe. Anyone can feel psychologically close to a shooting or its victims. Anyone can be within the zone of trauma.
In the days that followed the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, a child psychologist we spoke to was on his phone at all hours, reassuring scared children that there was no reason to believe that their schools were unsafe. Over and over, he told his patients that the massacre had been an awful tragedy and that everyone in the country felt very sad. But don’t worry, he said — grown-ups believed that other children were still safe in their schools.
Those were more innocent times.
Today, even the things Americans do to stay safe reinforce the message that danger is everywhere. It has become fairly commonplace for schools across the country to hold mass shooting response drills. In day care centers, staff members practice locking doors and keeping toddlers quiet. Adults who try to reassure children that they need not worry about a gunman coming to their classroom will be arguing against a lifetime of drills sending the opposite message.
That’s a small trauma compared with an actual mass shooting. But it’s not rare, or dependent on being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just something that happens in schools now.
This is life with unparalleled access to guns. After all, mass shootings existed before social media. So did white nationalism. So did crazed loners. So did the human susceptibility to misinformation and extremism.
But this is also life with today’s internet, which has brought those things together in new ways.
This article was adapted from The Interpreter, a weekly column that explores the ideas and context behind major world events. Sign up for the Interpreter newsletter at nytimes.com/newsletters, and keep an eye out this Friday for a special newsletter that builds on our reporting from Brazil. Watch “The Weekly” on Hulu.
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