Idolisation to isolation: the echo chamber effect

February 1, 2023

Collage with photo by Adrien Olichon from Pexels

Liz (name changed) explores some of the insidious paths to radicalisation

There’s a danger with social media that it can restrict our exposure to diverse perspectives and sources, setting up shared narratives, leading to the creation of echo chambers. The issue with having an unlimited amount of like-minded people at our fingertips is that the most opinionated person becomes a micro (or mega) celebrity.

These people spread misinformation and pull young and old people alike into dangerous groups who hold increasingly extreme views.

They promote violence, racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, environmental denialism, terrorism, anti-Semitism; you name it they’ve done it. Being aware of these charismatic personas is one of the many ways you can avoid being radicalised.

The list of influential men, like Elon Musk, Kanye West and Andrew Tate follows a similar story; where they climb out of their respective subcultures to dominate a new era of ‘free speech enthusiasts’ and promote ideologies centred entirely around wealth, women and the world of politics.

Through my observations and researching their rise to fame I will demonstrate a potential route to radicalisation through the story of a fictional character – a would-be radical artist called X.

Having a non-controversial media presence
X is a famous artist on social media. They post videos about painting and the art scene. Collecting a mass audience never begins with millions of people salivating over your every word.

Gaining support
I’m passionate about art, so I’m likely to follow X. Like X, I also paint landscapes – we share that trait and, on top of that, X says: “more people should paint landscapes”. I agree with this too! This person, who has similar interests, has an opinion that resonates with me. It’s objective and shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and it’s coming from someone I respect and am beginning to idolise.

Coming to their defence
X and I agree that more people should paint landscapes – great, no harm there! I have a casual opinion and it is being affirmed with this online connection. But then, people disagree; they comment under one of X’s posts “I like to paint portraits and there’s nothing wrong with that. Let artists paint what they want!”. I roll my eyes and respond: “that’s not what X was saying. They’re just suggesting more people could paint landscapes”. I feel protective of X as they haven’t done anything wrong. I like their art and I agree with their opinions, and people who can’t see that are just small minded.

Doubling down
X notices the people disagreeing with them; maybe they lost a few followers, but they also gained some: a new group of people who don’t like portrait painters. They have a newfound respect for X, and are loud in their support – much louder than I was.

X does a livestream every week. When people first start disagreeing, X responds saying: “I understand not everyone has to agree with what I say”. They try and show proof and validation too. The next month X says: “it’s not my fault if I upset portrait painters, I wasn’t talking to them” and the next time I watch one of their live streams, X says: “portrait painters are stupid, shouldn’t paint and if you support them don’t follow me”.

Division and isolation
“Unfollow me if you don’t agree with me” is a divisive statement, a provoking statement. Once X makes that statement, they are no longer a person with an opinion, they are a person who wants to separate those who agree with them from those who don’t. X is now someone who doesn’t support differences of opinion in their community.

Victimised mind set
X was supposed to exhibit at a popular gallery. The gallery hears about what X has said and decides not to have the exhibition as they don’t support what X is saying. They want all artists to feel included and having X there will make portrait painters uncomfortable. Maybe their biggest funders are also portrait painters – they don’t want to lose business by hosting X.

X then feels ostracised by their community and, instead of apologising or seeing the fault in their claim, that “portrait painters are stupid”, they feel defensive over their initial claim that “more people should paint landscapes”.

X can’t acknowledge how their view has changed from harmless to harmful and they start to say how horrible this gallery is, how horrible the whole art community is, biased against people with open minds; how the art world is controlled by powerful people who want to keep the status quo, and shut down free thinkers like X.

Reinventing their brand and monetising it
A ‘university’, a club, an online school, here’s where X starts to create their own institutions if established ones won’t let them in. These places and platforms are often ways they can make large amounts of money from their supporters. X creates their own exhibitions. First, they host an online exhibition, which I attend, then an in person one. There they tell me how horrible and corrupt other galleries are, how the portrait painters are against X and anyone like X.

X tells me how I’m like them. How I should support them by not going to these awful corporates’ exhibitions and I listen because I trust X. Suddenly all the information I have about art and the art world is from X because nothing else can be trusted. Anyone who says otherwise is just influenced by the ‘portrait painting elite’. They can’t see the truth.

Aligning themselves with a larger identity
Trump, Islam, Christianity; when X aligns their controversial opinion with a bigger institution, they branch out from their niche in the hope of gaining a larger audience in order to isolate and exploit. It becomes difficult to criticise X when they have the backing of a larger organisation.

If X gains the support of the Christian community and begins to use it to validate their claim, for example: “Jesus doesn’t like portrait painters” or if they convert to Islam they may say: “in Islam depictions of Allah aren’t allowed so no portraits should be allowed”. It’s now even harder to discredit their beliefs. Not only are you “buying into the elite” if you do so, you are also insulting or questioning their religion.

X could also align themselves against a group – a common enemy – paedophiles, and say they want you to paint portraits, to dispute this claim is to defend paedophiles!

These obviously aren’t the only steps a person takes to radicalise and become radicalised. It can happen in many ways, but if any of the steps of X’s path to radicalism resonate with a person you support, perhaps their intentions aren’t as pure as you might think.

Are they targeting and isolating you? Do they want your money? Do they insist people are offended by their presence and deny their more radical opinions? Do they trick and confuse you, utilising pseudoscience to question your intelligence or wealth to make you seem smaller? If this is the case, then they could be a radical figure.

To avoid becoming radicalised it’s important you fact check what you read and keep a constant rotation of varying political opinions on your social media and in the articles you read.

You can check out this article for more information about keeping safe online.

Teachers can access resources at Educate Against Hate to safeguard their students from radicalisation and promote inclusive values in their school.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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