I will talk about a women, who was born in the former Soviet Union at the end of the 1950s, but, who belonged to the ethnic German minority, who lived in Russia since the times of the Katharina the Great and who experienced mass deportations and confinement in Gulags during the Second World War, just because they were ethnic Germans. In the early 1990s in the wake of Soviet Union disintegration, these ethnic Germans from Russia, also called Russian-Germans, were allowed to reallocate to the newly reunited Germany. And so this women came with her three children (her husband died in the 1980s) to Germany. Within two years they received German citizenship, were given a council flat and the women received German lessons and vocational training (her University degree from the Soviet Union was not recognized). She found a job and being a widow she additionally received social welfare from the state. Of course she experienced troubles and difficult times (e.g. being at some point unemployed for two years, cleaning staircases in big apartment blocks to earn some money) and not every German was welcoming Russian-Germans, who were often perceived as merely Russians, but she also experienced lots of generosity and help. She found a partner. She saved money and eventually bought a house. Her three children are all very successful, all of them studied at universities. She is a grandmother now. And yet, this women is today full of hate and rage, against the government, against Angela Merkel, against the Green Party, against immigrants, against the mainstream media, against the US (but not against Donald Trump), against Greta Thunberg. What happened?
To be fair, she always tended to be conservative, showed some persistent xenophobic tendencies and certain attitudes of suspicion against the political class and media (and in fact against people in general) could be partly explained with her socialization in the Soviet Union, where governments and media lied on a regular basis. But these tendencies never tended to be extreme and emotionally overcharged. Things started to change during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. This women, who always used to be very critical of Russia, suddenly became the most passionate defender of Putin and his actions in the Ukraine and in general. She blamed the US for the war in Ukraine. The Western media were perceived as biased against Russia, applying different standards to Russia comparing to the US and to be fair that's not entirely untrue (without disputing that Russia played an extremely destructive role in Ukraine). And then came the refugee crisis in 2015 and since then the radicalization just spiraled out and continues until today infecting more and more issues and themes, most recently climate change, which the women tended always to take seriously (until recently). And that's because she bought into a package: if you are against immigrants, you deny climate change in some way as well, you are against vaccination, etc.
The women stopped listening, watching or reading mainstream media, she would only watch the news to get the weather forecast. She stopped listening to her children or to anyone else disagreeing with her, instead she consumed more and more media content on the Internet, predominantly on YouTube. Political discussions were at some pointed an agreed tabu in the family to avoid arguments and tensions, but of course that did not work. Inevitably political topics would come up and the family would engage in heated arguments. But, the positions would only harden, the distance would only grow. I once asked her, how she gets across these media contents, which she would refer to, when making her point and she simply said, YouTube would suggest videos to her. I explained to her that she is falling prey to an algorithm, that would show her only content, that she is likely to look at, this way reinforcing her views and not exposing her to different views. In fact, YouTube tends to suggest incrementally slightly more extreme videos, to really captivate its users and make them spend more and more time on the platform (see here for instance). But this argument did not impress her, she only said, that she still selects among those suggested videos, thus, exercising a free choice. I asked her to list me her favorite sources and YouTubers, she mentioned Hagen Grell, Claudia Zimmermann, Oliver Janich, Heiko Schrang. I then told her what I found out about these people, how their "theories" (e.g. denying climate change) have been refuted or how they were found to be involved in dubious affairs or how their views are openly racist or anti-Semitic. None of that mattered. She believes these people have seen through everything, have comprehended the hidden truths (and that is of course how these "influencers" present themselves) and she attributes apparently greater credibility and intellectual capabilities to these "alternative journalists" then to her children, who have academic degrees or experts, who actually research these things empirically, even if these experts are close to her on a personal level. She would dismiss any critique. These "alternative journalists" are seen as (and they present themselves as) victims of an increasing conformist society and media, trying to discredit any deviating opinion. On the other hand, mainstream media would even act as further reinforcers of her views, for instance if they actually invite a climate denialist to a talk show and then of course that particular show or channel suddenly becomes credible again in her eyes. However, when presented with media or expert content that challenges her views, she would simply dismiss it as lies, propaganda, etc.
I do not see any way to get through to her, she would disregard any argument, because she believes we, those, who disagree with her, are being manipulated, by the media, by the government, etc. She pities us because we cannot see the truth. Everything is part of a conspiracy. The tragedy here is of course that yes, there is a sort of "conspiracy" (though it's not actually a conspiracy, because it's not a secret plan) against the ordinary people, but, it's not the conspiracy that they believe to have grasped, that they are made to believe to have grasped. Rather they are instrumentalized by certain elites, who sometimes operate in the hidden (like the Koch Family Foundation) and fund for instance online disinformation on climate change or other controversial issue (like health insurance). But more often, these elites ingeniously persuaded the "common people", that they are not the elite; that they are fighting with the common people against the elite, even if they clearly belong to the class of the rich (e.g. Donald Trump) or political class (e.g. AFD politicians) etc.. The "common people" are persuaded that they are the free-spirited rebels, who cannot be tricked by governments or media. Their rebellion identity is constructed as a heroic minority identity. They are made to feel unique and they are made to believe that they outsmart the others. They are told, that they are taking back control, but, in the end these "common people" are only made to make decisions (e.g. though voting) that benefit those instrumentalizing them (e.g. preventing radical climate change policies, that would cut their profits, preventing higher taxation or regulation, etc.). And in the long term they, the "common people", will or are already suffering because of these policies (e.g. poor social welfare policies, poor health care, poor environment, etc.).
This was the story of one women, but this story is not unique, and it shows, that online radicalization is not a marginal phenomenon. And while these people might not kill others (although the women said, she would not rule out to conduct an arson attack on a refugee center in her neighborhood) their radicalization does matter, because these people exercise power through their voting behavior, blocking progressive politics e.g. on climate change. We need to find a way to de-radicalize these people too. However, just correcting misinformation does not seem to work, maybe we have to put much more effort into facing them with friendliness and respect as a recent study suggests. Ultimately, we have to show them ways out of their delusion, where they can keep their personal integrity intact, where they are not hurt or humiliated. They need to feel a victory when changing their radical views. I will try.