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Hell in a handcart Media Technology

“That is phenomenal engagement. What’s not to like?”

Alex Hern explores the tragic and frightening tale of one man’s descent into psychosis, a descent that was speeded up by online radicalisation.

There is no doubt that people have been radicalised by the internet, and by this particularly horrible corner of it. There are just too many cases like Slyman’s, where we can see, in the pattern of YouTube likes, Facebook groups and Twitter follows, someone entering the funnel at one end – watching Jordan Peterson videos, or listening to the Joe Rogan Experience – and then, six months or a year later, fully “red-pilled”, accusing Hilary Clinton of child murder or calling for a second civil-war in the US.

(One particularly curious thing about this as a Brit is that that’s even the journey of radicalisation of much of the UK far right. God knows we have our own pathways too – with Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins playing major parts – but the number of Trump t-shirts and MAGA hats at British fascist gatherings is wild.)

But in this case, six days just feels too quick for the normal radicalisation narrative to fit.

Hern asks a frightening question: what if the algorithms that push content to us can push us over the edge?

if YouTube’s recommendation algorithm had learned to recognise the signs of someone on the edge of a psychotic break, and had learned that if you show them a lot of QAnon videos at that stage in their life engagement goes through the roof, what would be different from the tale we’ve just heard?

We’re still not taking the problem of online radicalisation seriously enough. Part of it is human, where extremists use cult tactics to recruit people to their cause and create echo chambers of increasingly extreme ideology. But a great deal of it is automated, and that automation not only rewards extremism but promotes it to the people least able to sort fact from lurid fiction.

Five days after he watches his first Q video, he is live-streaming his belief that the local radio station is sending him coded messages from Q. Later that day, the song You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive convinces him the Deep State is coming to kill him, and he gets in the car with his wife and kids and begins his drive.