RSA Webinar: Preventing extremism requires addressing underlying grievances

Si Gladman / 25 March 2022

Preventing radicalisation and public polarisation in an ‘infodemic’ age requires a thorough examination of underlying societal grievances such as inequality and corruption, the latest RSA Webinar heard.

Speaking at Wednesday’s webinar (watch recording below), guest speaker Dr Vivian Gerrand said conducive environments of grievance made people more vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation, especially during times of crisis.

In recent years, social media has made it possible for political opportunists and extremist groups to effectively exploit people’s grievances.

“It’s really the combination of that environment of grievance that we have seen – whether it’s because of natural disasters, the pandemic, a war – that make people much more vulnerable to the kinds of misinformation or disinformation that we can see happening online,” Dr Gerrand said

“As we’ve seen, the public health measures that have been critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19 have led to some of these grievances. They’ve led to a lot more uncertainty, trauma, loss of jobs and dignity.

“In an era of internet dominance, it’s a perfect storm of different factors coming together. Existing inequalities have deepened, so vulnerability to novel kinds of social influence in this environment is not, in some ways, surprising.”

Dr Gerrand said a number of approaches were needed to combat the rise of extremist views, including through grassroots strategies to educate and support resilience toward polarising or extremist content online and the introduction of social media algorithms that support depolarisation.

But she said paying attention to addressing societal grievances was essential.

“It’s really critical that we examine this environment because, as long as we have the kinds of inequalities that we have, we’re not going to see any of these groups’ demise. It doesn’t matter how much we reconfigure the algorithms, change the content and make people critical, if they’ve got an underlying grievance, then we have a problem,” she said.

“When we look at some of the narratives that are circulating in anti-vaccine groups or QAnon groups, they’re often tapping into corruption, the billionaire class – they’re really critical of that, and I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong about that. They’re worried about surveillance, for example… So there are legitimate reasons underlying some of this that we could deal with better.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.