by Manon Michelle Monhemius
The world seems to be more divided than ever. Left-wing/right-wing, blacks/whites, Muslims/Christians, religious/non-religious, immigrants/natives and so on. Can it be that social media plays a role in the escalation of polarization?
‘Thousands of miles of fences and walls have been built in the present century by at least sixty-five countries. These barriers, at every scale, promote “us and them” mentalities and are erected in many cases to protect “us” in some way from “them”.’ says Tim Marshall, in his book ‘Divided'. This is one of my favorite books and it does a good job of explaining why it appears as though we are living in an age of walls.
This statement about an ‘us and them’ mentality by Marshall sums up what I have seen happing around me. It is not limited to physical and national borders alone, we put up mental barriers in our minds too. Look at the Presidential elections in the United States for example. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality of Trump supporters vs. Biden supporters has become so tense that people fear(ed) violent confrontations.
Last month in Paris the ‘us and them’ mentality was on display when the attack on teacher Samuel Paty escalated tensions between part of the Muslim community and the Western non-Muslim community, as well as between more radical and more moderate Muslims, all the way up to diplomatic levels. Paty was beheaded after showing a Muhammad cartoon in his classroom, as he was teaching his pupils about freedom of speech and expression in France. Paty was killed by a man who did not know him but had seen videos of the outraged father of one of Paty’s pupils. Videos the father had shared through social media.
What we read and engage with on social media affects which messaging reaches us, and what reaches us strongly affects our view of the world and our place in it. What I see on my Facebook feed, everybody sees, right? No, they don’t. What you see in your feeds on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, and other channels is targeted only towards you. This is done in order to keep you scrolling and clicking, and to change your behavior through targeted ads you receive. The recently launched documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ made this very clear to me. The same people who have built these algorithms and ‘like' buttons for our favorite platforms are ringing the alarm. They are warning us about their polarizing effect.
Let’s go with YouTube as an example. When doing some research about the attack on Paty, I looked mostly at news videos about what happened, plus videos about life in the banlieues (a suburb of a large city), in order to gain a better understanding of why more youth in the French suburbs are radicalizing. While watching one video, another was already being recommended to me. For every video I watched, another video would be recommended, supplying me with a steady stream of ‘similar’ content.
For someone else this could be a different YouTube spiral. If someone were to look up the video that the father had posted, where he was visibly outraged about the Muhammad cartoon, another video of someone being angry about perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric could get recommended. YouTube would keep supplying what it thinks will keep that person on the platform.
This causes a person to get a very one-sided idea about what is happening. Especially since the more ‘extreme’ messaging performs well because it keeps you watching. You don’t get another perspective, unless you are specifically looking for it. This has the potential to make you less understanding about someone else’s point of view.
‘The Social Dilemma’ highlights for me why the work of the Trustbuilding Program teams is so important, to keep building bridges between parts of society that are drifting further away from each other. Oui Act, for example, is building bridges between marginalized youth, often from sub-Saharan or Northern African descent, Muslim and disadvantaged families, and French society. Their work supports these young people in understanding and feeling that they are not a victim of society, but that they can be active changemakers in a constructive way.
This is important, as these young people’s socio-economic status can be an important driver of extremist thought. Growing-up in a situation where young people feel like they have no future can lead to identity formation, as they might identify with people in the same situation as themselves. This can lead to ‘us against them’ sentiments. ‘Us’ being the victim of ‘their’ policy, ‘them’ becoming the enemy. Social media feeds might endorse their one-sided world view, shared with similar minded friends. That this can have serious consequences and can be seen by the number of French citizens who have joined IS and the al-Nusra front. Already in March 2014, French authorities estimated this number to be more than 700.
Another section of youth is also becoming more radical, with a growing number joining the far-right group Génération Identitaire (Generation Identity) who do anti-migrant stunts. They believe that Muslim immigrants in Europe are the cause of an ‘Islamisation of Europe’. This conflict spirals the divisions between the French Muslim community and French society and young people, both sides becoming more radical which leads to incidents of conflict, feeding into an already existing spiral of segregation, both with their social media feeds endorsing their school of thought.
In Kenya, this radicalization is also happening with a part of the Muslim youth that feels marginalized in a majority Christian country. A high percentage of Kenyan youth are unemployed, especially in the Muslim-dominated Coastal and North Eastern provinces. The Somali Muslim extremist group ‘Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen' (al-Shabaab) is actively recruiting Kenyan youth. Part of their strategy is online recruitment. As more young Muslim people are radicalized and joining al-Shabaab, the distrust between Christians and Muslims is increasing. With every violent attack feeding the conflict spiral and the level of distrust.
The Kenyan trustbuilding team delivers various trainings and outreaches, such as interfaith dialogues, to rebuild trust between Muslims and Christians in Garissa (North Eastern province) and Mombasa (Coastal city). The effects of this work is seen by young people taking action themselves to address the distrust in their community. For example, in Garissa, which is a hotspot of conflict and al-Shabaab violence, a group of students set up a WhatsApp group to tackle local polarization between Muslims and Christians. The students communicate, share, and learn from each other through the WhatsApp group, which in turn is building trust and connections between the students.
With increasing polarization, fed by the current constructs of social media platforms and other internet companies, IofC’s trustbuilding work is more important than ever.
Do you want to be part of de-polarization? Have conversations with people that think and feel differently than you, and with whom you might not agree, read their stories and watch their videos to try understanding a different opinion.
If we all take conscious action against polarization, then hopefully, one day, we can break down those barriers and (mental) fences, and instead build bridges where we can ‘see’ and better understand that there is no ‘other’, there is only ‘us’.
 Franz, B. (2015). Popjihadism: Why Young European Muslims Are Joining the Islamic State. Mediterranean Quarterly 26(2), 5-20
*Illustration by Manon Michelle Monhemius
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The Trustbuilding Program is aimed at addressing divisive issues at the international and national levels, on the premise that only those who have undergone the internal process of becoming trustworthy themselves can close gaps across the globe. The Program was launched by Initiatives of Change International in 2019 with projects in Kenya, Canada and France.