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Social Media and Political Extremism

February 28, 2023

Social media has become a ubiquitous presence for much of the world, including for people who use social media platforms to spread extremist views.

Some 4.66 billion people were active internet users in 2021, a figure that accounts for more than half the world’s population, according to IVolunteer International. Most of these individuals use social media, Statista reveals, with 4.26 billion on at least one social media platform in 2021.

Political extremists and terrorists use social media platforms to spread their message. For example, IVolunteer reported that nearly two-thirds of extremists (65 percent) used Facebook to communicate their views and encourage action between 2005 and 2016. In 2021, FBI Director Christopher Wray compared the spread of extremism on social media to foreign disinformation campaigns.

An advanced education can help aspiring national security professionals recognize and address the threats posed to the nation and its citizens by the spread of political extremism through social media. 

What Is Political Extremism?

While the federal government doesn’t have an official definition for what political extremism is, political extremists have polarized beliefs related to political issues. They may seek to communicate their views to a wide audience and encourage others to share those beliefs. Some may take action to demonstrate their commitment to their stance. 

The outcomes of political extremism can include the following:

  • Mistrust of institutions
  • Rejection of facts
  • Erosion of traditional norms
  • Dysfunction among lawmakers
  • Increase in violence
  • Risk of cybercrime

Right-Wing and Left-Wing Extremism               

In political terms, the right generally refers to people with more conservative opinions, meaning they support preserving existing conditions with little change. The left commonly refers to people who are liberal or who support progressive reforms, such as an increase in social and economic equality. What does political extremism look like on the right and left though? 

Extremist views on the right include movements embracing white supremacy and religious fundamentalism. On the far left, examples of extremism include movements embracing anarchism and rejecting capitalism.

The Rise of Political Extremism in America

Political polarization occurs when political beliefs shift to extremes and attitudes about society split according to party lines. This divergence of beliefs and ideals has increased in the U.S. in recent years and can provoke division. 

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, political extremism in America can be particularly concerning around election season. The nonpartisan think tank points to political polarization around the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath — including the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — as a time when violence became more broadly acceptable among political extremists. 

Support for political violence has grown since 2017, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. By February 2021, for example, 20 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats believed that political violence was justified.

Political Extremism Attacks and Plots Increasing               

A 2021 Washington Post analysis showed that an increasing number of extremists were willing to act on their beliefs in violent ways.

Using data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institution, the newspaper found that incidents involving domestic terrorism were at a 25-year high. Terrorism refers to violence committed with the aim of sowing fear and advancing a political objective.

Since 2015, the analysis revealed, right-wing extremists had been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 97 deaths. Far-left extremists were behind 66 incidents and 19 deaths. More than a quarter of the Washington Post-reviewed incidents, which included attacks and plots, originated with individuals who expressed support for white supremacy.

Such attacks aren’t always committed with conventional weapons. The Cambridge Handbook of Political Psychology notes that cyberterrorism — a premeditated attack against individuals’ or businesses’ computer systems — is also a means to make people afraid, as part of an effort to advance political ideologies.

Targets of Recent Extremist Attacks               

According to The Washington Post, extremist plots and attacks in recent years have targeted various individuals and groups as well as physical locations. Attackers have wielded weapons ranging from guns and knives to vehicles and bombs. Among the groups that extremist attacks have targeted in the U.S. between 2015 and 2021 are:

  • People of color
  • Immigrants 
  • Jewish people
  • LGBTQ people

Political extremists were responsible for threats and attacks on locations such as:

  • Religious institutions
  • Government buildings
  • Abortion clinics

Social Media and Political Polarization           

Social media is a popular way to spread extremist propaganda that can lead to plots and attacks. The 2021 IVolunteer report showed that, by 2016, a total of 87 percent of individuals engaged in political extremism used social media to promote an extremist agenda, up from just 8 percent in 2005.

Extremists sometimes rely on the spread of misinformation — information that’s false but that may not have the intent to mislead — or they may use disinformation, which is deliberately false propaganda.

Because of the massive platform it provides to users, social media can greatly accelerate the spread of false information, which can sometimes make it appear factual. 

Speaking with Forbes for a recent article, William Pelfrey, a professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, says, “One of the key issues associated with misinformation is the rapidity with which compelling news stories are circulated. A powerful image or story is quickly picked up, posted, reposted, tweeted, retweeted and very quickly becomes news. Reputable news agencies want independent confirmation of a story before circulating. Social media does not need any confirmation, which means misinformation can go viral very quickly.”

Polarizing social media activity can surge in the aftermath of certain events, as a 2022 article in Frontiers in Political Science notes. Researchers studied the type of language posted to Reddit following key U.S. events in 2020 and 2021. The research revealed a significant uptick in the negative tone of posts for months after George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests in spring 2020, and after the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

It’s not just social media that can be an online haven for polarization. Livestreaming video platforms, for example, provide an opportunity to post politically polarizing content that can lead to extreme beliefs and behaviors in real time, with limited opportunity for moderation. 

Does Social Media Cause Polarization?               

A 2021 report from The Brookings Institution indicated that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube likely aren’t the only culprits behind the rise of political polarization. However, they can encourage these extreme beliefs.

The reasons that social media can foster polarization are many. Below are factors that can help explain the link between social media and political polarization.


Social media platforms rely on algorithms to identify the topics and viewpoints that users want to consume. They then share that type of information with those individuals — with increasing frequency — in an effort to increase engagement. Because of this practice, social media users are more likely to hear only the viewpoints that align with their own, an effect often referred to as an “echo chamber.”

News Feeds             

In 2019, more than 70 percent of U.S. adults consumed news on social media, according to a 2021 American Economic Review article. In 2008, less than 1 in 8 adults did so. The growing reliance on social media news feeds for updates means that because of the platform’s algorithms, users may have limited exposure to media outlets that express views different from their own.


Expressing opinions on social media affords extremists a greater level of anonymity than face-to-face interactions, allowing them to post comments that they might not share otherwise. Also, some social media platforms, such as Whisper, offer users the opportunity to send messages that don’t identify them.


Social media platforms often feature a select group of influencers, or individuals whose accounts have many followers. Influencers who are extremists have a broad reach in their social media communities that amplifies their polarizing messages.

Lack of Oversight               

With fact-checking on many social media platforms often limited, extremists can sometimes post information that supports their ideologies regardless of its validity. Platforms like Gab, in fact, tout their lack of content moderation. When users receive false information, they may accept it as true and pass it on without fact-checking it. 

Statista reported that in December 2020 nearly 40 percent of social media users surveyed admitted that they had accidentally shared false information through one of the platforms.


By offering individuals an opportunity to see repeated instances of extreme and radical content, social media and other online sources can diminish users’ emotional response to this type of material. Content that social media users repeatedly view online can become normalized — even if it might seem outrageous in other circumstances.

How Social Media Influences Terrorism 

The connection between social media and political polarization is a concern for national security officials, who warn of the ongoing danger of terrorism around the world. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) described a “heightened threat environment,” due in part to online activity that advances misleading information and conspiracy theories.

Use of Social Media in Terrorism               

In addition to stoking political extremism, social media threats can originate from foreign and domestic entities that aim to harm the U.S. These “threat actors,” according to the DHS, often introduce or spread extremists’ messaging to encourage the beliefs that can spawn terrorism. 

Additionally, global terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have sought to elevate their work, recruit new followers and stoke fear through social media, using tactics like:

  • Publishing their plans 
  • Engaging social media users in online conversation
  • Using messaging that attracts a young audience
  • Showing acts of violence
  • Taking responsibility for terrorist acts
  • Redirecting social media users to websites about their groups
  • Seeking financing

When social media platforms work to curb their content, extremists often are ready with messaging that capitalizes on that monitoring to further sow division. Frequently, these groups find it easy to bypass social media bans by creating new usernames. They also use algorithms to their advantage, incorporating trending words or hashtags to increase their visibility.

Social Media’s Role in Political Extremism: Examples 

Social media activity has frequently served as the impetus for individual action or group demonstrations in recent years. 

Sometimes, these social media-fueled actions have been peaceful events aimed at building awareness. Other times, extremist language on social media has been linked to violence — and sometimes even deaths. Below are examples of extremist actions that originated on or were fueled by social media.

Attack on the Capitol               

Participants in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol received and sent social media messages related to the event before, during and after it occurred, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 

Before the event, NBC News reports, far-right extremists posted social media messages urging followers to “occupy the Capitol” and bring a “revolution” to Washington. During and after the event, far-right extremists inaccurately blamed far-left group Antifa for the violent protest, a claim later repeated by some U.S. lawmakers.

Patriot Front March              

Patriot Front spread its message of white nationalism through social media in 2021, when members marched in Washington. A member brought attention to the group’s actions by creating a fake Twitter account — one that’s deceptive about who owns it — and announcing that 500 men with riot shields were marching in the nation’s capital, according to the SPLC. That fictitious tweet, designed to encourage participation in the protest, garnered 1,000 retweets.

Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting             

The SPLC points out social media’s influence on an extremist charged with carrying out violence at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018. Before fatally shooting 11 people, the accused shooter was a frequent poster of antisemitic commentary on the social media platform Gab.

Anti-Police Protests               

A 2020 report from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), an organization that works to identify threats related to disinformation, indicates that far-left extremism relies on tactics such as posting memes and catchphrases on social media to promote their messages. It cites references to violent revolution and martyrdom as well as attempts to dehumanize the group’s targets, particularly police. It notes the impact of social media messaging in encouraging fires, looting and property damage in the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder.

Security Guard Shooting               

Facebook was criticized by the sister of one of the two federal guards killed in Oakland, California, during the 2020 protests. She noted that the man charged with the shootings established a connection with members of the so-called boogaloo movement through the social media platform, according to ABC News. This far-right anti-government extremist movement advocates for a second U.S. civil war.

New Zealand Mosque Attack               

In 2019, a gunman livestreamed on Facebook during two terrorist attacks on mosques in New Zealand. Although 200 people watched the video live, no one reported the crime until after the stream ended, according to the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), an organization that works to curb crime and terrorist activity that occurs on social media.

Strategies for Political Deradicalization Online 

Reducing the online spread of political extremism calls for a joint effort between law enforcement and government officials, the private sector and individual citizens. It must also balance efforts to protect public safety with concerns about violating free speech and privacy rights.

In 2021, the U.S. government announced it was ramping up its efforts in the deradicalization of political information online. With a new branch dedicated to domestic terrorism, the DHS is tracking activity on social media and in other digital locations more closely. 

The goal of the federal program is to partner with technology companies to find solutions that manage safety while ensuring personal rights. The 2021 Eradicate Hate Global Summit cautioned against ignoring that balance, pointing out that social media can be a force for spreading the word about social and political injustices and encouraging positive action. 

In partnership with government leaders, law enforcement, the business community and private citizens, security officials can take the following steps:

  • Protecting the rights of social media users, focusing social media oversight on curbing violence and other dangerous activities
  • Scrutinizing lesser-known social media platforms, some of which aim to skirt oversight and promote extremist ideologies
  • Educating users about how to identify inaccurate content online, equipping them to think critically about the information they consume

Speaking with Forbes, Pelfrey notes the personal responsibility social media users bear in guarding against misinformation, saying, “All participants on social media should treat information with skepticism — there are sophisticated and well-funded agents actively trying to mislead us. Social media was never intended to be a medium for news distribution but it has been corrupted with shocking efficiency.”

Protect Against the Dangers of Social Media and Political Extremism

The threat of political extremism on social media and elsewhere online has commanded the attention of law enforcement and security professionals at the highest levels. If you want to help protect against the danger that can result from political extremism in the U.S., it makes sense to seek the advanced homeland security and emergency preparedness training that can prepare you for the role.

The Virginia Commonwealth University online Master of Arts program in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP) is a first-of-its-kind opportunity to learn how to protect against domestic and global threats. You can learn directly from security, safety and intelligence experts in an online program that also offers hands-on experience.

Explore how VCU’s online HSEP program can help you acquire the knowledge and skills to protect your community.

ABC News, “Sister of Officer Fatally Shot at Oakland Federal Building Sues Facebook for Wrongful Death”

Alliance to Counter Crime Online, “How Violent Extremist Groups Have Hijacked Social Media”

American Economic Review, “Social Media, News Consumption and Polarization: Evidence From a Field Experiment”

Britannica, Types of Terrorism

The Brookings Institution, “How Tech Platforms Fuel U.S. Political Polarization and What Government Can Do About It”

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Rise in Political Violence in the United States and Damage to Our Democracy”

Defense One, “Three Steps to Fight Online Disinformation and Extremism”, Extreme, “‘Misinformation’ vs. ‘Disinformation’: Get Informed on the Difference”, “Why Do ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Mean Liberal and Conservative?”, Introduction to Political Terrorism

European Center for Populism Studies, Political Polarization

Forbes, “Social Media and the Midterms – Are the Platforms Doing Enough to Address the Spread of Misinformation?”

Forbes, “Social Media Has Provided a Skewed Account of the War in Ukraine”

Fox News, “What Is the ‘Boogaloo’ Movement the FBI Is Warning About?”

Frontiers in Political Science, “The Language of Extremism on Social Media: An Examination of Posts, Comments, and Themes on Reddit”

History Extra, “A Brief History of Extremism — From Ancient Rome to al Qaeda”

HuffPost, “Social Media Is Traumatizing Us More Than We Realize”

IVolunteer International, “The Rise Of Digital Extremism: How Social Media Eroded America’s Political Stability”

Lawfare, “What Extremism Means to the Federal Government”

Modern Diplomacy, “Social Media and Polarization of Society”

NBC News, “Why Did the FBI Miss the Threats About Jan. 6 on Social Media?”

Network Contagion Research Institute, “Network-Enabled Anarchy: How Militant Anarcho-Socialist Networks Use Social Media to Instigate Widespread Violence Against Political Opponents and Law Enforcement”

Policy & Internet, “Countering Extremists on Social Media: Challenges for Strategic Communication and Content Moderation”

Scientific American, “Why Social Media Makes Us More Polarized and How to Fix It”

Southern Poverty Law Center, The Year in Hate and Extremism Report 2021

Statista, Number of Social Media Users Worldwide From 2018 to 2027

Statista, Share of People Who Have Ever Accidentally Shared Fake News or Information on Social Media in the United States as of December 2020

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Summary of Terrorism Threat to the U.S. Homeland

The Wall Street Journal, “Social Media Plays Key Role for Domestic Extremism, FBI Director Says”

WESA, “Could Social Media — Often Used to Spread Extremism — Play a Role in Preventing Hate Crimes?”

The White House, Fact Sheet: National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism