Event Recaps

Experts discuss how social media’s design radicalizes its users

Social media platforms are designed to maximize our attention, suck us in, and keep us hooked. They do this by keeping the public in the dark about how algorithms elevate certain content, pushing people deeper and deeper into echo chambers.

On February 2nd, 2024, Issue One’s Council for Responsible Social Media (CRSM) hosted experts in national security, technology, and democracy to discuss the effect of social media on domestic and foreign extremism, how algorithms are designed to radicalize users, and what solutions are necessary to protect our democracy from extremism.

The panel was moderated by CRSM Co-chair and former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Kerry Healey, and featured the following panelists:

  • Farah Pandith: CRSM member, senior advisor at the Anti-Defamation League, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, foreign policy strategist, and former diplomat
  • Sasha Havliceck: CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, expert advisor to the UK Counter-Extremism Commission, the Mayor of London’s counter-extremism program, and member of the European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Michael Chertoff: National Council on Election Integrity member, co-founder and executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

The speakers highlighted how compelling conceptions of one’s identity and belonging are often employed as tactics for online recruitment into extremist organizations. Pandith flagged how actors choose different demographics to target on different platforms, such as targeting a specific age group that is more active on a particular site.

The panel considered online extremism’s contribution to the evolution of terrorism. Sec. Chertoff explained that modern-day terrorism was often facilitated through online radicalization of lone actors. He noted this type of “terrorism 3.0” as a stark comparison to the extremely hierarchical and organized terrorism that was seen with the 9/11 attacks.

The panel also discussed the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence and how its ability to generate convincing deepfakes makes countering extremism increasingly pertinent and challenging.

When addressing possible solutions, the panelists flagged the regulation of algorithms and greater editorial control of platforms to remove extremist content from their sites. They also urged for improved trust and social cohesion in society, which often starts at offline and localized levels. There was additional consensus that a greater emphasis be placed on the threat of growing radicalization and extremism — a robust “ecosystem of scrutiny” should be employed by both government and nongovernmental actors, Havliceck encouraged.

In December 2023, Issue One and the CRSM released “Dangerous by Design,” a report that underscored how social media companies are hurting our children, national security, and democracy. Among other topics, the report covered social media’s risks to U.S. national security and the algorithmic amplification of extremist content, and outlined several core principles that should guide federal solutions to avert the crisis we face. Read “Dangerous by Design” to learn more.

Watch the full event recording.