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How Social Media Fuels the Normalization of Extremism

The recent GBH investigative report and subsequent deep-dive conversation on Boston Public Radio serve to remind us that even in liberal Newton, extremist views can take root. But how is this possible? How does it happen?

It’s been clear for a while now that national right wing groups are targeting Newton, specifically our schools. You need to look no further than the innocently named “Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism” or “Parents Defending Education” to see the inspiration for last spring’s petition to the School Committee calling for curriculum oversight and the protest against a drag performance at ToBeGlad Day at Newton North.

But the question is, how are these extremist views gaining a foothold in otherwise liberal Newton?

The short answer is social media. But the slightly longer answer is that some of the local Facebook community groups that have emerged as a key component of local civic engagement are biased, allowing extreme positions to be mainstreamed and normalized. In some cases, a single moderator holds the reins to all decisions about what is allowed and who can stay within the groups; in effect, a single voice dictates the rules, norms, and membership of these groups, often with a chilling effect.As professional local news organizations withered and disappeared, social channels like Facebook, Reddit, Nextdoor, email listservs, and X (aka, Twitter) emerged as an easy way for locals to share information. It’s how groups raise money, share arts happenings, and alert others to interesting agenda items on the city docket.

But for a while now, several popular Facebook groups in Newton–formed initially as a resource for the “whole community”–have seen a lot of activity from people with right-wing views, some of whom don’t live in Newton. When the groups initially started, a “discussion” often reduced to anger, frustration, and personal insults, leaving the moderators to try to treat it as an even conversation, working to balance both sides.

That doesn’t work. How can you balance both sides when one side is promoting ideas that create further harm to marginalized groups, and the other is simply trying to point that out? It’s a point that is known as the “Intolerance Paradox;” that is, the idea that in order to be a tolerant society, we cannot tolerate intolerance. For a person who wants to be tolerant, it isn’t a comfortable position but has proven to be truly necessary. Right-wing voices often wrap themselves in the protective garb of “tolerance” when they want their hate speech recognized as free speech. But allowing antisemitism, LGBTQ+ hate, or racism doesn’t amount to tolerance. It only leaves people feeling angry and isolated. The answer is to recognize when this is happening and shut it down.

Unfortunately, behemoths like Facebook do not provide tools or training to community organizers, leaving moderators with the unwieldy job of spending their free time trying to manage an unruly group of people. It’s how rhetoric born from organized, well-funded groups that do not have the best interest of Newton at heart are able to seep into the local conversation. This is an explicit strategy on the part of these national groups and it is happening all across the country.

More recently, some of the local Facebook groups have banned or censored many of the progressive voices (usually without cause or warning) whose views do not align with the “moderators.” Many others have left on their own accord, not feeling safe in the increasingly intolerant environment. Those that stay often remain silent in the face of misinformation and right-wing ideology, because speaking up leads to a torrent of attacks, which often devolve into the personal. The danger here is that those who are left in the groups, those who do more listening than posting, will be fed a slanted view of the city and the happenings here. This echo chamber poses a true threat.

Those doing the listening must understand that they’re not getting a real view of the true opinions of their neighbors; they are hearing something that is designed to change their views. It’s effectively the social equivalent of Fox News, a voice with a purpose that isn’t about our city’s best interest, but about a larger agenda that is operating on a national scale. Our resistance against this encroachment is in our hands, but only if we all understand what it is we’re being fed.

By Chuck Tanowitz, Kara Peterson, and Laura Towvim


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