Directions for future research
Both the earlier discussion and the Christchurch shooting show that the interplay between extremism and information disorders seems to be cyclic. Against a backdrop of globalisation and immigration, societal and political polarisation is on the increase. In turn, this climate of societal polarisation feeds into an increasing state of intergroup tensions, conflicts, and intolerance. Consecutively, these increased levels of intergroup conflict are a breeding ground for violent extremist attacks such as in Christchurch. These attacks set in motion a chain reaction of similar attacks everywhere around the world, leading in turn to increased societal polarisation. And the cycle starts over again. At the epicentre of this global cyclic movement is the information ecosystem and, specifically, the increasing spread of information disorders.
In that sense, this cyclic pattern is similar to the ‘flywheel hypothesis’ of extremism (see Frissen 2019, 89—93). This hypothesis states that such a cyclic chain of events is much like a mechanical flywheel, in as much as information disorders provide the initial energy supply to get the cycle in motion. At the same time, they provide additional kinetic energy to keep it going. The stronger the driving force, the more kinetic energy is built up in the cyclic process and the more inertia the flywheel possesses. This metaphor also implies that even if the driving force is briefly taken away, the flywheel will remain in motion for a while. As a result, it is through the driving forces of information disorders that the flywheel builds up kinetic energy and keeps turning.
A consequence of this hypothesis is that if we wish to study phenomena such as extremism — including the extreme right — we need to approach it from a ‘bird’s eye’ perspective. Current research lacks a holistic approach enabling a deeper understanding of the creation, dissemination, and impact of information disorders, as well as the combined roles of interpersonal and mediated types of communication. Most research about the extreme right has taken either a theoretical approach (e.g. ‘What is it like?’) or a quantitative perspective mainly aimed at the sources (e.g. ‘Who follows it, and how is it spread?’). However, we know very little about the way the target audiences — that is, the users of this contentious and socially unacceptable content — actually define and make sense of this kind of content. Since it has often been argued that fake news and disinformation are ‘in the eye of the beholder’, there is a crucial need for additional research on people’s own understanding of contentious content. We need to better understand the social-psychological characteristics of vulnerable individuals (both as target audience and as subject of the contentious content) and set up initiatives able to make people more resistant to extreme-right disinformation. At the same time, increased scientific attention is needed vis-à-vis the role of digital platforms and the increasing dominance of algorithms in the information ecosystem. For this kind of research, scholars may want to include predictive modelling, forecasting, and computational methods (such as agent-based models).
1 The actual scientific and analytical meaning of the term ‘fake news’ evaporated almost overnight after its introduction by Craig Silverman (2016) and its appropriation by US president Donald Trump, who rightly saw it as a powerful weapon against critical journalists and media. A thorough discursive analysis of what fake news exactly is goes beyond the scope of this chapter. For such an analysis, see Farkas and Schou (2018).
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