In the past few weeks, there have been two cases of online radicalisation reported in our local media. One was a case of a self-radicalised 17-year-old teenager who wanted to launch attacks at two local mosques. He was inspired by the right-wing terrorist that launched the New Zealand attacks. Another was a case of a 32-year-old Malaysian working in Singapore who had planned to travel to Syria. He was supported by his Singaporean wife. The report revealed that they were influenced by radical propaganda. These individuals, together with several other cases reported in the past, have shown that the ideology of hate and terror disseminated online is extremely dangerous.
The segregationist propaganda, coated with religious jargons, conspiracy theories, deliberate falsehood and disinformation can lead to the “inception” of minds. Those who are susceptible to these propagandas may resort to violent acts, all in the name of the “truth” that they have subscribed to. They may have been sucked into an alternate reality - believing that they are part of a greater cause in liberating themselves from the “evil” and “falsehood” of our existing reality and fighting the “inevitable” cosmic war. Indeed, this description does look like someone who is immersing himself/herself in a very interesting VR (Virtual Reality) game - except this is happening IRL (in real life). Many have been radicalised through social media.
When we hear of such news - we often ask how and why these individuals have fallen to the destructive ideology that does not make sense to many of us. After all, they live among us and are not isolated, like in some dungeon, detached from the outside world. The answer is - the medium is the message. Communication scholar, Marshall McLuhan wrote in his book, The Medium is The Message that it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” While the book was written prior to the advent of the internet and the social media, his argument on the role of the medium in shaping the minds of media consumers continues to be relevant in today’s digital age.
The internet and social media allow us to liberate our minds, free us from the shackles of our environment and elevate us to a limitless world without borders. The internet leads to the democratisation of knowledge and freedom of information. However, the unintended consequence of this laissez-faire medium is the dark hole of extremism, hate and falsehood that one can be sucked into.
This had enabled many groups, including the radical and extremist movements and/or ideologues to use the online medium as an effective propaganda platform to wage their ideological and psychological warfare. These individuals and groups offer an alternative reality to their targeted social media consumers. They utilise the various social media platforms - from websites, social networking accounts, microblogging and social networking service, to video-sharing and video-sharing social networking platforms to rally people to their specific cause and belief. It is part of their soft-power approach to win the hearts and minds of their potential followers. After all, public support - demonstrated today by the number of followers, likes, shares, comments are important for image-building online.
In enabling these destructive narratives to be popularised online, we need to deep-dive into how social media works. The algorithm is key in answering the question as to how one can be sucked in this alternate reality. In How We Win, foreign policy academic, Farah Pandith, observed that among the millennials, “decisions about what to believe were made almost instantaneously - if a given image or posting had hundreds of likes or a given imam had tens of thousands of followers, or if a friend had retweeted a picture or an article, that was often enough for credibility.” A post that has been liked many times will be ranked higher on several social media platforms - making it more visible on a user’s feed. This enables such posts and messages to reach a wider audience online. Additionally, as explained by Farah Pandith, “driven by prior online behaviours, highly sophisticated algorithms potentially drawing on thousands of pieces of data, present us with content we are likely to find incredibly compelling.” This provided users with an illusion of a “reality”.
Ultimately, users are confined to their specific digital echo-chamber, where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Social media platforms will further suggest friends and/or pages that are similar to the user's interest and preference. This has resulted in some users being further radicalised as their social media feeds are being populated with content that promotes radical/extremist narratives, further reinforcing their cognitive bias. Furthermore, there have been cases of extremists who have succeeded in getting connected with vulnerable individuals through the suggested friends' feature.
Social media algorithms are essentially not a bad thing. This explains how if we have searched for a product or services, for instance, a sofa, we will suddenly see various posts (especially sponsored posts) about sofas and related furniture appearing on our social media feeds. This is how advertising works on social media - targeting consumers with specific needs and preferences. Similarly, if we are a fan of a football club and we have been clicking news and articles on our favourite club, our news feed will be further filled with news related to our club and, at times, news or articles of other club’s defeat. In addition, the social media platform will also suggest we can connect with profiles and pages of other similar club’s fans.
However, the danger here is the filter bubble that this sophisticated algorithm exposes us to. We may then think this is the only reality that exists - and this is not the shared reality experienced by the world. The recent Netflix show, The Social Dilemma, delved into the dangers of algorithms in shaping the minds of individuals. One of the featured interviewees in the show warned how algorithms work in social media is akin to “imagine Wikipedia providing different definitions for different people according to your behavioural patterns.”
Social media allows users to operate on a different set of facts such that one may not be able to evaluate or may only consume information that is in-line with his/her worldview. This may lead us to be less objective and less receptive to diverse views. We may be fixated with our own worldviews and biases. We are then confined to our virtual safe space and disagree with ideas that do not resonate with our views.
The next question we wish to ask is - are we more united or divided? While the internet and social media opened our horizons as we are no longer restricted to our physical borders, social media may have led us to become more divided than getting us more united. We have seen in some nations, how the political rights and the political lefts are deeply divided, where civility once defined the political relationship and engagement. In How Democracy Dies, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt observed that there is a growing trend where political opponents are treated not as rivals, but enemies to be destroyed - a departure from the democratic norms.
Religion also continues to be one of the significant fault-lines in today’s digital age. Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theorised that conflict will continue to exist between nations, and its primary axis will be along cultural and religious lines. Social media may have exacerbated this fault-line.
Religious polarisation is made worse with the proliferation of online falsehood and disinformation. Hate narratives are generally combined with falsehood masqueraded as religious narrative. Believers of these narratives and messaging would then may go another step and turn these ideologies into destructive actions that may lead to the loss of lives and disintegrate the society.
In Indonesia, authorities have uncovered a clandestine self-proclaimed cyber-jihadist network known as the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA). The network was accused of spreading fake news and hate speech to inflame religious and ethnic schisms by spreading defamatory content to undermine the authority. In the US, government building being stormed by right-wing supporters demonstrates the impact of deep polarisation that was exacerbated by social media channels.
Today, you can choose what and who you want to listen to and ignore people and facts that do not conform to your worldview. This hastens the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. Through social media algorithms, two groups who did not want to hear each other are eventually unable to hear each other anymore. When each of us is entitled to our own ‘fact’, there is no need for compromise and no need to come together and find a middle ground. This led to a new form of tribalism and which consequently can land us in a culture war.
Among Muslims, we already have seen groups and preachers who attack others as heretics for differences in religious views and practices and not just those who do not share our faith. Social media has been used to rally support from like-minded followers and denounce those who are different. It creates a false narrative - and the idea of we practise the more authentic Islam vis-a-vis them - the “other”, or worst, the “heretics”. These groups and preachers promote exclusivism - showcasing their brand of the faith as the only true version of Islam. However, these groups and/or preachers continue to thrive as they are seen as ‘‘credible’ in the eyes of their followers who provide them with the oxygen and, in turn, they provide them with populist rhetoric.
When we have any question in mind - who do we ask and where do we turn to? For Apple users, Siri is our go-to assistant for information on driving directions, weather forecast and checking on the opening and closing times of our favourite malls. Similarly, Google Assistant provides us with numerous answers and even performs activities we ask it to do for us - such as to play music, switch on the air-con and send text messages on our behalf. These AI-powered virtual assistants make us rely more on machines than people, and probably decreases our interactions with others.
Beyond these virtual assistants, search engines play a primary role in providing us with answers and information that we are looking for. When we develop some medical symptoms, we ask Google to find out what is wrong with us. Dr Google provides us with ‘answers’ as to what illness we could be having - often leading to unnecessary panic for individuals with hypochondria, a condition in which a person is excessively and unduly worried about having a serious illness. Similarly, for many of our religious queries, we turn to Google for quick answers. Sheikh Google becomes our sheikh on-the-go - always available 24/7.
Using Google and search engines to look for religious answers and information is not fundamentally wrong. It is a technological medium that enables us to get easier access to religious information. Among the most popular searches online among Muslims are prayer times and halal food. Muslims also rely on Google for questions related to Fiqh (jurisprudence/rulings) issues. Researchers in Islamic studies, religious teachers and scholars also use Google to look for relevant information for research and reading, as there is a plethora of content that is available online to be accessed and assessed, from journal articles to e-books and from websites to commentaries.
What is essentially important is for users to understand that Google and other search engines should not be used as the only source of reference. This myriad of information should be accessed with guidance from experts in respective fields. When presented with various content on search results, how does one determine the religious view presented is credible, sound and relevant? After all, search results are not determined by critical evaluation but are ranked based on popularity. For convenience sake, the top 5 results presented are usually the ones that will get our clicks.
Google and search engines provide us with a free marketplace of ideas, including a free marketplace of religious information. While it was intended to open our minds and explore a diversity of views, in How We Win? Farah Pandith observed that there is an “overwhelming lack of diversity” in the religious narrative that is presented to users. This “ideological void” according to her is worrying as some millennial Muslims are “more likely to embrace curated expressions of religion and extremist ideology”. The lack of criticality in assessing content presented can lead one to accept what they read online as the only truth and authentic narrative of his/her faith. She shared that terrorist and radical networks have been “particularly successful appearing to youth who don’t have a strong rooting in the religion”. According to her, it is “easier to dislodge people who don’t have much knowledge, filling them with a bunch of nonsense that pushes them over the edge.”
While Sheikh Google is a popular term to explain this phenomenon, Ustaz/ah Reddit and Sidi Twitter and Mawlana Facebook are part of this laissez-faire religious phenomenon. Social media led to decentralisation of authority, including religious authority. Anyone and any channel may be able to gain ‘credibility’ online by sounding compelling, targeting the right users and being active online. The challenge is therefore to empower users to be critical thinkers who can assess the content they are presented with and prevent them from online radicalisation.
This ‘Sheikh Google’ phenomenon is not unique and confined to just Islam and Muslims. It is part of the larger phenomenon of online radicalisation - including the far-right extremism. The Straits Times recently did an online search experiment and found that it is very easy for users “to slip down the radical hole on a path to self-radicalisation”. They did a simple search on Google and inserted keywords including the New Zealand mosque attacker. The first item listed on the search result was the Christchurch attacker's 87-page manifesto. The Straits Times also reported that “a quick hunt for his supporters online led to several forums, where hate speech peppers almost every comment. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination saturate the message boards.” It added that in one of the threads, a link to a YouTube video of a Xenophobic song was also available, and discovered this same song is also available on Spotify.
Ultimately, what can we do to prevent ourselves and our loved ones from being sucked into this dark hole of extremism? As social media is our reality, there is no alternative to it. We cannot escape from social media or isolate ourselves from the evolving digital age.
First of all, we should inculcate digital media literacy for social media users. We need to be better-informed users. Take back our control online. Understanding how algorithms works can make us more conscious of our online user experience and journey. When we are presented with content that appears on our feeds, both organic and/or through sponsored posts, we should not take it uncritically at face value. We should pause, and reflect on this content and think about why this content is targeted at us. Be cognizant that social media algorithms can divide us.
Secondly, we should expand our online circles - following various pages and personalities that may not be in agreement with one another. When following religious pages and personalities online, it is always recommended to diversify our references. Similarly for offline, we are encouraged not to just follow one religious teacher uncritically such that we become obsessed with a particular teacher and teachings and disregard others and fail to acknowledge the multiplicity of sound religious views available. This will prevent us from being confined in our own echo-chamber.
Thirdly, as we continue to search for answers on search engines, do allow ourselves to read several websites that provide various answers. Complement it by consulting our local religious teachers and religious authority for clarification. In studying Islam, we need to study it comprehensively. There are various religious classes offered online and offline by accredited religious teachers and institutions that we should enrol in. Piecemeal Islamic knowledge online can lead to various misunderstanding, misapplication and disinformation. It is always good to confirm with accredited teachers offline and we should not stop at that level. Be someone who is sincere in learning and explore knowledge beyond relying on the unverified online platforms. Have the habit of reading books and be immersed in knowledge.
Fourthly, by understanding how algorithms work, we understand how content is ranked. We can do our part by engaging those positive and empowering content - those that promote peaceful co-existence, kindness, love and inspiring stories of individuals. Like, share and leave our comments on these content. Pages and content creators that promote critical thinking, diversity of thought and enable followers and users to think and reflect should need to be popularised, promoted and supported. When we are presented with problematic content that seeks to divide us and promote hate, we should call out such content.
Social media is a tool; we can choose whether we use it for good or bad. We have the power to safeguard ourselves and our loved ones. While social media may have led some users to be radicalised, we can use it to fight against online radicalisation. With the combination of data analytics, digital marketing and working with social media content creators and social media and technology companies, we can fight hate and radicalisation together as a community.
Diversity is our strength. These efforts need to be supplemented with in-person outreach and engagements. Although this may be more challenging due to the ongoing pandemic, let’s continue looking out for one another, making a conscious effort to be friends with those who are different from us and treating everyone with kindness and respect.