Jair Bolsanaro
Credit: Palácio do Planalto

Max Fisher and Amanda Taub have spent two years researching and reporting on the internet’s role as a force for radicalization. But as Fisher said on Twitter, nothing has disturbed him more than their recent story about how Youtube radicalized Brazil.

Most of us have been exposed to the fact that individuals like the El Paso shooter were engaged with white supremacists in online forums. We’ve heard about how people like Steve Bannon used Cambridge Analytica to psychographically target young white men with racial messages. But Fisher and Taub decided to ask a different question.

Wherever we looked, the rate and consequences of online radicalization seemed far beyond what we’d anticipated, and were growing fast. So, in January, we decided to ask the question in a different way: Could the consequences of online radicalization go beyond a few extremists and, in ways that might be less obvious but perhaps just as consequential, radicalize large swaths of an entire society?

That is what led them to travel to Brazil.

Brazil’s politics have experienced a sudden, world-shaking shift, with Jair Bolsonaro, the once-fringe, far-right politician, becoming president this year. Years of political corruption crises had undoubtedly played a role. But something else was clearly happening there.

And Brazil is the second-largest market for YouTube, after the United States. YouTube has not received as much scrutiny as, say, Facebook. But experts say the platform has the power to radicalize people and communities in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Here is what they found that was so disturbing.

Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine.

New research has found they may be correct. YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.

A New York Times investigation in Brazil found that, time and again, videos promoted by the site have upended central elements of daily life.

Teachers describe classrooms made unruly by students who quote from YouTube conspiracy videos or who, encouraged by right-wing YouTube stars, secretly record their instructors.

Some parents look to “Dr. YouTube” for health advice but get dangerous misinformation instead, hampering the nation’s efforts to fight diseases like Zika. Viral videos have incited death threats against public health advocates.

And in politics, a wave of right-wing YouTube stars ran for office alongside Mr. Bolsonaro, some winning by historic margins. Most still use the platform, governing the world’s fourth-largest democracy through internet-honed trolling and provocation.

Renan Santos, the national coordinator of a group that used Youtube videos to agitate for the 2016 impeachment of the left-wing President Dilma Rousseff, made a chilling statement: “Reality is shaped by whatever message goes most viral.”

On Monday I wrote about how tyranny takes hold via a process of malignant normalcy. Here is how Dr. John Gartner explained the process.

Malignant normality is when a malignantly narcissistic leader takes control of society and gradually changes reality for everyone else. So their crazy internal reality becomes enacted in the lived true external reality of that society. This is how a leader can come in and change the mores of their society.

What Fisher and Taub found in Brazil is that social media platforms like Youtube can advance malignant normalcy in their quest to maximize watchtime (ie. make money).

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Beto O’Rourke wrote an opinion column for CNN titled, “It’s America’s Moment of Truth.” This is the portion that caught my eye.

When President Donald Trump describes Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “bringing crime,” or refers to undocumented immigrants as individuals who “infest our country” — he speaks not as America’s President but as an emissary of hate. And his vilification and fear-mongering connect with those who are open to receiving it.

The seeds of terror we saw that August day are transmitted day and night on Fox News, the most watched cable news channel in the country. They are amplified by right-wing websites like Breitbart, and in messages forced onto local news broadcasts by Sinclair Media.

They metastasize on Facebook. And they filter up from grotesque online havens for white supremacists who preach intolerance and worship violence.

What O’Rourke just described are the forces that have aligned to make a profit off of hate—gaining either political power or money, perhaps even both. As O’Rourke said, our moment of truth has arrived. Silence is complicity.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.