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'It's a slippery slope': How young men fall into online radicalization

Experts say social media algorithms target young men with extreme content that can lead to radicalization. Some groups are working to dismantle traditional masculinity norms in young men that they say can contribute to extremist beliefs.

Reid Brown says YouTube started showing him problematic content when he was 13

While parents can't get ahead of all the technology their teens might use, experts say they can offer help by teaching them media literacy — and early on. (Dmytro Tyshchenko/Shutterstock)

Reid Brown remembers the first time he got sucked in by the algorithm — he was just 13, watching videos after school when YouTube started pushing him to controversial content. 

As time went on, the videos became increasingly extreme, says Brown, now 21. 

"It started out pretty benign," he recalls. "You're watching something about teen fashion and then the next thing you know, the algorithm would push you to a Ben Shapiro video."

Though Shapiro describes himself as a conservative political commentator, his views are controversial — and some are outright discriminatory. He's suggested, for example, that transgender people suffer from a "mental disorder." 

But he has a combined 9.4 million subscribers and followers on YouTube and Twitter, many of whom are young people, like Brown was when he got pushed in Shapiro's direction.

Reid Brown says the content he was being recommended online began influencing the way he behaved in the real world. (Submitted by Reid Brown)

Shapiro is not affiliated with any hate group. However, experts say his content is used by extremist, far-right groups as an entry point that exposes young men to harmful comments and posts on TikTok, YouTube and other apps. Over time, exposure to this harmful content can slowly radicalize vulnerable teens, they say.

Though TikTok's decision to remove influencer Andrew Tate's account for misogynistic content the company said violated its policies put the discussion in the spotlight, the personal stories of people like Brown offer unique insight into the effect the content can have on teen boys.

The videos Brown watched as an early teen were often misogynistic, he said, and it started to affect the way he thought and how he interacted with people at school. 

"I remember repeating some sexist attitudes, things about the wage gap .… Especially when I was hanging out with my guy friends, we were repeating all these things we were seeing on the internet. A lot of sexism and misogyny."

Seeing his friends act out these things in person made it "more real" than just watching an idea online, he said.

It can escalate in the comments

That's exactly how online radicalization works, says Ellen Chloë Bateman of Brown's experience. 

A documentary and podcast producer who researches online radicalization among young men and incel subculture, Batemen describes radicalization as a "slippery slope" that can begin as algorithms pushing boys to video that's increasingly harmful.

Then "someone might engage you in a comment thread and tell you to join their Discord group [where] the content gets darker and darker, and it's edgy," she said. "It's entertaining for some young guys, and before you know it, you've stumbled into an extremist subculture." 

The targets are often young men who feel lost or isolated; they look to these groups as a way to escape those feelings, she says. 

Ellen Chloë Bateman, a documentary and podcast producer, has researched online radicalization among young men and incel subculture. (Zoom)

"The allure of these hate groups is that they provide isolated young men with a sense of community and power — often for the first time in their lives — and give them a target, someone to blame for the challenges they perceive in their lives."

Some young men may also see messages of empowerment for women and girls as an attack on masculinity, says Joanna Schroeder, a writer whose work focuses on gender and media representation.

"Maybe they see Me Too stuff … maybe they see a T-shirt or bumper sticker that says, 'The future is female,'" she said. "There's a lot of encouraging content out there for girls … and if [young men] aren't given an opportunity to talk through their feelings on this, they may see that as, 'Men are irrelevant.'

"That doesn't necessarily mean that's what's happening … but they may feel that way."

So how can our society give young men a way to work through their feelings in a healthy way? 

That's what Morris Green found himself asking — and what he says he hopes his organization can offer. 

Finding a healthy outlet 

Green is a health education consultant who is part of GuysWork in Nova Scotia, an organization now in its 11th year. 

Green says he began working with schools in Nova Scotia in 2012, hoping to give young men a safe space to talk about their feelings, mental health and to disrupt problematic ideals about masculinity.

Joanna Schroeder, a writer who specializes in gender and media, says young men may feel 'irrelevant' if they’re unable to talk through the way the feel about media they consume. (Zoom)

Those harmful social norms can include anything from the pressure on young men to drink alcohol, to not wanting to be seen as vulnerable or ask for help, he said. 

There's also often homophobia and a concern that being anything other than straight may be perceived by peers as "not normal." 

"We wanted to basically normalize help-seeking behaviour," he said. 

Green said GuysWork sessions focus on fostering a sense of safety and inclusion for young men who might not have an adult role model or someone they feel they can talk to.

"We're really trying to be creative … with the lessons and the facilitation, to create that safety for some really important conversations that are simply not happening in most cases."

And it's paying off.

In 2020, GuysWork took part in a study with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. There, Chris Gilham, an associate professor and the lead researcher, found that GuysWork was able to positively shift young men's views on some masculine norms that he said can be harmful to short- and long-term health outcomes. 

Many of the 180 students who participated said they felt they no longer needed to perform a "certain kind of typical and traditional masculinity," and instead could be "gentle, caring, kind and considerate," Gilham said. 

Bateman and Schroeder both agree that role models are critical to the healthy development of young men. They say it's important that parents are talking with their kids about the kind of content they consume online. 

"[Parents] need to look out for signs of radicalization, including language and behavioural changes," Bateman said.

How to have healthy conversations 

While parents can't get ahead of all the technology their teens might use, Schoeder said, they can offer help by teaching them media literacy — and early on.

"We start doing media critique with them when they're quite young, so they have the skill to analyze something when it's put in front of them."

And it's important to be inquisitive with teens rather than reacting with anger if they share that they're watching controversial videos, she said.

WATCH | Algorithms and their agenda: 

How algorithms target young men

3 months ago
Duration 1:16
Joanna Schroeder, a writer who focuses on gender and media, explains why social media algorithms target young men, and how this can impact what they're looking at online.

"Ask them questions about how they're feeling about [the content] and then affirm their goodness for talking to you about it."

As for Brown, he's now a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at Dalhousie University. He said he was able to avoid being pulled into more extreme content by using social media less often — and instead reading literature and diverse media publications. 

For him, it really comes down to the impact of social media. 

"Young men aren't inherently sexist. I think it's the algorithms that can really make them this way." 

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story may have implied a direct connection between Ben Shapiro and extremist, far-right groups. In fact, experts say it's Shapiro's content that is being used by those groups.
    Oct 17, 2022 4:10 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brock Wilson

Journalist

Brock Wilson is an associate producer with the social media team at CBC News based in Toronto. He can often be found creating content for the CBC News Snapchat Discover page and writing stories for the web. You can reach him at brock.wilson@cbc.ca.

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