Statement for the Record RE: Mainstreaming Extremism: Social Media’s Role in Radicalizing America

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Dear Chairwoman Schakowsky, Ranking Member McMorris Rodgers, and Members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Julian Sanchez, and I’m a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who focuses on issues at the intersection of technology and civil liberties—above all, privacy and freedom of expression. I’m grateful to the committee for the opportunity to share my views on this important topic.

New communications technologies—especially when they enable horizontal connections between individuals—are inherently disruptive. In 16th century Europe, the advent of movable type printing fragmented a once‐​unified Christendom into a dizzying array of varied—and often violently opposed—sects. In the 1980s, one popular revolution against authoritarian rule in the Philippines was spurred on by broadcast radio—and decades later, another was enabled by mobile phones and text messaging. Whenever a technology reduces the friction of transmitting ideas or connecting people to each other, the predictable result is that some previously marginal ideas, identities, and groups will be empowered. While this is typically a good thing on net, the effect works just as well for ideas and groups that had previously been marginal for excellent reasons.

Periods of transition from lower to higher connectivity are particularly fraught. Urbanization and trade in Europe’s early modern period brought with them, among their myriad benefits, cyclical outbreaks of plague, as pathogens that might once have burned out harmlessly found conditions amenable to rapid spread and mutation. Eventually, of course, populations adapt. Individuals—those who survive—adapt by developing immunities through exposure, which once a critical mass is reached yield herd immunity, leaving pathogens with too few susceptible hosts to spread effectively. Communities adapt by developing hygienic practices and urban architectures designed to divorce the benefits of human connectivity from the pathogens hoping to come along for the ride.

Our own transitional era is host to no shortage of ideological pathogens, from violent and fanatical religious movements to bizarre conspiracy theories such as QAnon. And the social media platforms on which these pathogens spread find themselves in the unenviable position of attempting, by trial and error, to discover how one builds a functional sewer system.

Julian Sanchez

Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce
Committee on Energy and Commerce
United States House of Representatives