Having access to the internet came with rules when I was growing up. Screen time limits and specifically allotted websites kept me from the dark depths of the web, but I was still given a relatively wide breadth of freedom when it came to what I consumed online. The internet was a place of joy and escape, but it was — and still is — a place where dangerous messages go unaddressed and the minds of impressionable individuals are thwarted by hate.
The launch of TikTok in 2018 was the bridge between quick yet threatening political information and younger generations. Hidden among dance tutorials and dogs learning new tricks lies alt-right propaganda. Racist, homophobic and misogynistic content flourishes online, and often instructs the actions of its users.
According to the algorithm of the social media platform, TikTok users that simply interact with such videos soon fall down a rabbit hole of prejudice, doomed to constant viewing of extremist opinions as they scroll. With consistent exposure to such propaganda, young social media users are led down a pipeline of sorts, becoming victims of the recruitment methodologies and mobilization techniques of the alt-right.
The subject of the alt-right in America is nothing new. Professor Alexandra Stern, University of Michigan Professor of American Culture and History, published the 2019 book “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate.” Dedicated to the study of white supremacy in America through to the contemporary era, Stern recognizes the upsurge of the alt-right as “not so much a movement, but more of a phenomenon.”
The term “alternative right” has been utilized for decades, symbolizing the ideology that values the white identity and opposition to political correctness and equality. Apparent in political leanings and social behaviors, those who associate with the perspectives of the “alt-right” are proud and feel a sense of solidarity as they stand alongside their brothers and sisters in hate. Their goal does not stop at spreading their dangerous message to all those who will listen: they want to recruit new members and mobilize them to act upon their ideologies.
This recruitment occurs via the “alt-right pipeline.” The recent escalation of the alt-right has been heavily attributed to the rise in the prevalence of social media, particularly apps like TikTok and YouTube. The alt-right pipeline is the victimization of internet users, particularly young people, based on specific algorithms that perpetuate and spread radical, hateful content online. While such YouTube videos are often hard to find for the first time, the model of the site allows for seemingly harmless inquiries to turn into violent realizations.
Individuals do not just end up as members of the alt-right — they are led through an interactive and affirming spiral, starting as functioning members of society and entering into a new life of extremism.
In the 21st century, most of the influence done by the alt-right pipeline is done through social media platforms. “Social media has never been neutral,” Stern said. “It has always had institutional biases.” The demographic that utilizes these applications the most is young people, but teenage boys are most threatened by the messaging and strategies of the alt-right. From passing along mild misogyny that is coded as “comedy” to making flat-out anti-Semitic and Islamophobic propaganda, boys will seek out this content or fall across it while researching other, less pervasive ideologies.
Today, a popular internet persona is recently-banned TikTok star Andrew Tate, a so-called “self-help guru” that pushes the message to young men that assaulting women is permissible, and that the place of a woman is to cook and clean for their partner. He was only removed from the site after immense backlash, but his message still remains strong, and while some boys may stay in that area of “moderate” radicalism, others may move onwards towards much more destructive tendencies. Once you enter the pipeline, it is hard to escape.
Take Salvador Ramos, who carried out a mass shooting at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. In interviews with The Washington Post, several young women reported that they had been threatened by Ramos, but that many had a difficult time differentiating casual online misogyny from more serious threats.
Armed with unfounded conspiracy theories and divisive language, the white nationalists on the other end of the pipeline utilize their positioning and internet skills to teach the next generation how to hate. “They want to bring young, white men on board because they see them as future soldiers,” Stern said. “They are a ready-made demographic who are online and on their devices.”
Bogged down by isolation from the pandemic, teenagers found solace and community in online spaces, whether they be video games or social media. Members of the alt-right lure in young people using peer pressure and anger-affirming rhetoric in these primarily young environments — we are a generation of easily-persuaded and convinced individuals, buying into any logic that makes us feel heard or seen. A separation in the online and offline spheres creates a safe space for these ideas to flourish, and for young men to actively tout their newfound belief systems in acceptable, aggressive ways.
“There is not just one solution,” Stern said of eliminating this dangerous pipeline. “It’s educators, government regulation, social media companies, communities, families, anyone that cares about democracy.” In order to dismantle the alt-right pipeline, there must be an algorithmic overhaul at the headquarters of popular social media giants, and parents of teenage boys must be educated on the red flags their sons begin to exhibit, such as increased aggression and isolation. The alt-right and their media techniques threaten the basis of our democracy, an ideology that Stern professes “carry out assaults on American society.” If we can’t stop hate speech at its root, we must stop it before it can spread to those who are most vulnerable to its enticing yet divisive allure.
The alt-right has been around for years, but the introduction of social media has made outreach much simpler, yet deadly. Take Dylan Roof, the Charleston church shooter, who — according to prosecutors — ‘self-radicalized’ on the internet. This threat is real, and deadly. As to whether the threat is readily understood by the American public, Stern says this: “There is more awareness about the threat posed, but an underappreciation of the extent to which these damaging ideas have found themselves in the mainstream.” The internet comes with a plethora of social and political benefits, but with respect to the alt-right pipeline, the costs are heavy — the rabbit hole towards hate is a deep and dark maze that is difficult to leave. The power is in the hands of social media executives to limit the spread of hateful propaganda on their sites, and in the practices of parents as they guide their children towards becoming educated, benevolent members of the digital age.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have thoughts about our pieces? The Michigan Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of Op-Eds & Letters to the Editor. Submission instructions can be found here.