It is much more interesting to perceive radicalization as a process that begins earlier, when the practice of dialogue and compromise between people with different worldviews or values is abandoned. This is the approach proposed by Alexander Schmid, who specializes in radicalism, extremism and terrorism. As a result of radicalization understood in this way, at first one does not want to talk to people with different views, and over time one does not want to have anything to do with them. One puts one's views above those of others, then denies them the right to different views, and considers those who hold them to be inferior, dumb and then starts to dehumanize them. This can lead to the denial of rights guaranteed by the democratic system to certain groups or, ultimately, to a tendency to behave in radical ways and against the law[1].

Radicalization Research in Poland

Last year at the Ciekawość Research and Innovation Center, in cooperation with the Laboratorium Więzi and Social Dialogue Committee we conducted an extensive study to explore the phenomenon of radicalization among Polish women and men. The report summarizing our research, entitled "Faces of Polish Radicalization" (Twarze Polskiej Radykalizacji) is to serve as a catalyst for self-reflection, and an examination of one's own beliefs and attitudes. That's why we conducted quantitative surveys among people with at least secondary education and in-depth interviews with people with higher education. The results show that neither education nor political views provide an effective 'shield' against this phenomenon.

What strongly struck us during the interviews was the number of topics that evoke very intense emotions amongst Poles. So strong that one can hate someone just for saying something that contradicts one's worldview. Otherness is certainly not interesting, at best it is tiresome. The survey showed that almost one in five people admit to having wished death in their head on an unknown person, such as a politician whose views are contradictory to theirs. . As many as 13% of people admit that, due to a worldview dispute, they sometimes happen to wish death on someone they know.

Our interviewees said:

"I was recently disturbed by myself, as I was behaving absurdly, because I caught myself spitting on my cell phone, while watching a video of a politician who was lying with a straight face."

"I mostly talk to my wife and loved ones about important issues. Poland is split in two. You don't know who thinks what. People prefer to talk about the beautiful autumn (...). One just mentions that we were supposed to move away from coal fifty years ago, not in 2022, and there is war. There are two separate monologues - everyone speaks, no one listens."

Some people find pleasure in arguing, but many are tired of disputes and have developed defensive strategies to protect themselves from encountering a different worldview. People prefer to surround themselves with people who think alike. Whether it’s at the market or at school parents' meeting, they can very quickly, even based on a few sentences about the weather (climate crisis), determine the worldview and political preferences of the other side and then either silently agree or safely withdraw.

Digital Conflicts

What is seen in the practices of everyday life has its mirror reflection in the virtual world. One might even say it is a distorting mirror. We are increasingly enveloped in bubbles where we encounter opinions that reinforce the belief that our worldview is the only correct one. When we finally encounter other views, the more they inspire hatred in us.

The Internet is the main source of information about the world for Poles with post-secondary education - 85% of them use it to learn about current events several times a week. According to the latest Reuters Digital News Report 4, social media is the primary source of information for 55% of Poles.

The more radicalized we become, the more willingly we turn to content that does not allow shades of gray and operates with simplifications. Consistency with our worldview becomes more important than objectivity. During the study, our interlocutors often denied politicians, but also people with differing views, their mental comprehension - they said that they were "stunted," that they "behave like a religious sect," and that they "do not think rationally." Very high emotional involvement in the conflict, combined with the belief that people from the "opposing camp" (wherever the dividing line goes) are mentally unstable, opens the door wide for false information or manipulated facts if only these confirm the thesis and build the us-them opposition more strongly. Disinformation contributes to further radicalization when it manipulates content in such a way as to strengthen and give credibility to extreme positions, in effect creating images of reality distorted in favor of extreme views.

And these heat the temperature of disputes even more. The Internet, providing anonymity, offers an ideal arena for arguments that are difficult to have in real life. 80% of Poles with at least secondary education have encountered online hate speech, and 26% admit to commenting at least sometimes in a harsh manner on online posts or articles. Our interviewees outright admitted that the Internet has become a place where they can give vent to their emotions:

"That's why it's best to argue on the Internet. There you can go for somebody’s throat."

"Fury and anger still shake me. That’s how it is – harsh comments from behind the screen. Swearing. Aggression triggers more aggression.”

"On Facebook, I got a warning that they may close my account. (...) I can still post there, but I have a warning. This happened just after I wrote to him when he said he was sick, and I wrote that he still hasn't learned his lesson. I don't regret anything I wrote."

What we are currently witnessing is a drastic change in the access to information and the way it is presented. As Jamie Bartlett writes, "One of the most important - and drastic - changes in politics in recent decades has been the shift from informational poverty to excess. Today, even the most disciplined mind cannot encompass the available information and give it order, meaning, or hierarchy"[2]. In our research interviews, there was a prevailing sense of being overwhelmed by the quantity of information and the inability to determine what is true and what is not. As one of our interviewees put it:

"There is no such thing as reliable information, each piece of information would have to be double-checked in two sources. There is a pervasive lie, everything could be a fake or from a troll farm. If something is unusual, I'm immediately suspicious. We're flooded with lies, on TV they lie, politicians lie."

"Now, with the Internet and technology, it's so hard to get the truth. But on the other hand, I also think that the quality of journalism has gone down a lot, that reporters used to be of real quality, and now it's mainly about being the first to publish something”.

News Verification?

However, the lack of authority and the inability to distinguish truth from disinformation do not go hand in hand with the willingness to verify news found on the Internet. According to Eurostat, only one in five Poles and one in five Europeans do so. Why is this so? When we swim in a sea of information, we get caught by the most tempting lures. The emotionality of the messages published on the Internet is another example of how radicalization and disinformation fuel each other. The media, vying for the increasingly distracted attention of readers, opt for catchy headlines and leads. This perpetuates a simplistic view of the world and inflames conflict. This has also been recognized by Facebook, which uses algorithms to promote highly emotional content. This is because such content generates greater user engagement and keeps users on the site for longer. We are finding it increasingly difficult to digest messages that are longer, more nuanced and require critical thinking. And in a sea of information, it is getting harder and harder to pick out those messages.

As a consequence, there is a prevailing discourse in Poland, and indeed globally, regarding the crisis of trust in the media, traditionally regarded as the fourth estate. Historically, their role has been to observe, monitor, verify, and inform the public about governmental actions and other critical social issues. At present, almost 8 out of 10 individuals with at least secondary and higher education believe that Polish media are biased and serve political agendas, with 7 out of 10 asserting that they exacerbate societal conflicts. Over half of the respondents believe that the media in Poland lie. The crisis of trust in the media is particularly acute among young people with 74% of individuals aged 18–24 agreeing with this statement.

Reshaping the Contemporary Information Ecosystem

In conclusion, our research illuminates the complexity of the relationship between radicalization and disinformation, evident across both online platforms and real-life interactions. Confronted with these challenges, it is essential that society actively engages in promoting dialogue, verifying information and building communal bonds. Only by doing so, we can reshape the contemporary information ecosystem into a form that embraces the diversity of perspectives and fosters constructive discourse.

Author: Katarzyna Fereniec-Błońska - researcher with over 13 years of experience designing and conducting social and marketing research for Kantar and the Paris office of Ipsos, where she led a global project combining qualitative and quantitative studies with machine learning. At Curiosity, she works with NGOs, cultural institutions and startups. In her research work, she is interested in social change and the impact of technology on lifestyles.

Background illustration by: junce11

[1] ​​A.Schmid, Radicalisation, De‐Radicalisation, Counter‐Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review, Hague 2013, s. 18.

[2] J.Bartlett, Ludzie przeciw technologii. Jak Internet zabija demokrację (i jak możemy ją ocalić), tłum.K. Umiński, Katowice 2019.

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