The internet is truly a marvel of communication technology. Not since the invention of the movable type printing press over five centuries ago has humankind seen such a tremendous leap forward. With the Internet, you can immediately communicate with anyone, anywhere. In the two or so decades since the Internet became broadly accessible, the Internet has reshaped the way we engage in almost everything, from discourse to commerce to entertainment; it is the collective mind of humanity. Everything we think goes on the Internet, painting a comprehensive tapestry of the human condition. But, for all the good the Internet has fostered, it has also provided a space for the darker tendencies of humanity. Our minds are full of dark places, and many dangerous thoughts have been made manifest, and then carefully curated and cultivated, on the Internet.
For radical voices across the political spectrum, the Internet has proven to be a godsend. Radicals no longer need to scour their areas to converse, proselytize, and organize. The Internet has given them a global audience, and millions have flocked to their various banners. This wave of internet-induced radicalization follows historical trends. Radicals have often used new mediums to promote their disruptive agendas. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the devastating European Religious Wars were fueled by pamphlets flying off the new printing presses. In the early twentieth century, film and radio were the mightiest propaganda tools of fascism and communism. Now, with the dawn of globalized online platforms, we see radical ideologies from Islamism to the Alt-Right adroitly maneuvering through the channels of the Internet, effectively and efficiently spreading their message and the chaos that accompanies it.
In 1453, a Mainz blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe. Little did he know that his invention would alter the face of history, to the point where Time Magazine proclaimed Gutenberg to be the most important man of his century. With the invention of the press and moveable type, a major barrier to accessing information dropped sharply, and written works proliferated across European society. The press led to a revolutionary upsurge in literacy, as easy access to the written word made a skill once restricted to the clergy and nobility accessible to the masses. It is no coincidence that, in the centuries following this upswing of mass literacy, European powers rose to global supremacy. Before the positive impact of the printing press could be felt for Europeans, however, the continent underwent a far darker chapter in its history. In 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, sparking the Protestant reformation, a massive theological, ideological, and political upheaval that tore the Christian West in two. The differences between Catholic Europe and Protestant Europe proved irreconcilable, and violence soon broke out. For nearly a century, Europe convulsed in a brutal sectarian conflict. At the center of the ideological battle stood the printing press, as extremists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides published increasingly radical pamphlets. The violence escalated and escalated, finally culminating in the Thirty Years War, which raged from 1618 to 1648. The war devastated Europe, leaving millions dead and much of the continent in ruin. Out of the war came a truce between Catholic and Protestant forces, as the nations of Europe rebuilt, and began to exert their influence on the global stage. Not for three centuries would the world see the degree of devastation wrought by the European wars of religion.
Much like the European religious wars, the World Wars started as seeds in the hearts and minds of people. A new age had dawned entering the twentieth century: an age of industry and nationalism. Accompanying the dawn of this new age came a rise in new methods of mass communications, the most important of which were film and radio. Now, nations could be stitched together, as radio and film had far fewer geographic barriers than traditional forms of communication. In the aftermath of the First World War, it was totalitarian dictators who truly realized the potential of these mediums as propaganda tools. In 1922, Benito Mussolini ordered his march on Rome via the radio, a march that would put him in power as the first fascist dictator. In the Soviet Union, the Stalinist state co-opted many great Russian artists, most notably Sergei Eisenstein, to create potent communist propaganda. In Germany, the Nazi Party’s grasp of the power of film proved vital to their seizure of power, as they awed German audiences with dazzling spectacles like the Triumph of the Will. Even in America, a bastion of democracy in these dark times, film and radio were used to promote dark agendas. In 1915, D.W Griffith released his magnum opus Birth of a Nation, a starkly racist film which can be directly credited with sparking the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the first film screened at the White House, and sitting President Woodrow Wilson described it as “history written in lightning.” In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin in Detroit used his radio pulpit to spread a message of anti-semitism and isolationism, helping place America in a stupor which would slow our intervention in the Second World War. More so than any other form of media, film and radio aided and abetted the rise of the forces which would kill millions in the first half of the twentieth century. The mass media radicalized nations en masse as they marched forward to destruction.
Like the other revolutionary forms of new media which preceded it, the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for the promotion of a radical agenda. No radical ideology has been quite as effective in their use of the Internet as jihadists. Using the Internet, jihadist groups can tap into a worldwide network of young, disillusioned Muslims. ISIS quickly grasped the power of the Internet as a recruitment tool, using it to build an army of fighters from all over the world. For those who cannot get to the caliphate, ISIS’s online presence serves to radicalize them enough to carry out lone wolf attacks wherever they are or have access to. They have been deadly successful in this regard, with their zealous followers launching attacks from Nice, France, to Orlando to San Bernardino in the United States. Thus far, efforts by governments to counteract internet radicalization have fallen flat, and the risk of lone wolf Islamic terror has become omnipresent across the west. This fear has played no small role in the empowerment of Donald Trump and the other right wing populists who have made such great strides in 2016.
While discussions of online radicalization tend to center around jihadists, they are by no means the only players in the world of online radicalization. The young and disillusioned have been taking up the banner of radical ideologies across the political and identity spectrums. Another prominent example of such an ideology would be the American “alt-right,” a loose collective of far-rightists whose ultra-reactionary ideas on gender and race have gotten them exiled to the political fringes. Before the Internet, people who held these views were generally isolated, rendering it virtually impossible to effectively network beyond local regions. The Internet thus proved to be a game changer for hate-peddlers, as they could now meet on sites such as Stormfront, or 4Chan’s /Pol/ board. The alt-right has been greatly empowered over the last year, and its enthusiasm has been directly tied to populist victories across the globe, from Brexit to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, spurred and supported in large part by extensive and virulent, independent and organized internet propaganda campaigns. The rise of the alt-right would not have been possible without their counterpart, the regressive left. The regressive left is the bizarro-world equivalent of the alt-right, calling for identitarian policies aimed at benefiting traditionally disenfranchised minorities at the expense of the broader white population. This is said to be in the name of social justice, but the hostile rhetoric and combative approach of the regressive left make it difficult to take their claims seriously. Like the alt-right, the regressive left used to be a marginal force in society, largely contained to academia. The Internet gave the highly literate proponents of regressive leftism a powerful outlet to spread their ideas. On Tumblr boards, Twitter, and across much of the mainstream media, the ideology of evangelical social justice progressivism proved ubiquitous. This far-left ideology prompted a massive growth spurt for the alt right, as the behavior of social justice warriors horrified many (particularly young white men), driving them into the hands of the alt-right (a process known as “redpilling normies” in alt-right circles).
History is repeating itself, and together, the regressive left and alt-right produce a downwards spiral, where the excesses of one drive many into the camp of the other, further entrenching the partisan divide. With the election of Trump and the victory of populists across the globe, we may be rapidly moving towards the point where our differences become irreconcilable.