WVU studies the impact of polarization and extremism on young people | News, Sports, Jobs


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Dana Coester, a professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, discusses the risks of exposure to extremist ideologies in online youth culture at WVU’s Academic Media Day Monday.

MORGANTOWN — A West Virginia University researcher says young people in West Virginia and beyond are negatively influenced by social media content and memes that often escape parental scrutiny.

Dana Coester, a professor at WVU’s Reed College of Media, briefed reporters across West Virginia on her studies of online polarization and extremism as Academic Media Day returns to the Center for Innovation in WVU media in Morgantown.

Coester, who is also creative director of WVU’s Media Innovation Center and editor of 100 Days in Appalachia, said teens and young adult men are targeted by social media posts designed to push them towards extremism. .

“It’s not a fair fight,” Coester said. “Millions of dollars of cognitive theory and behavioral neuroscience are spent on designing systems that push individuals to extremes and to great profit. When this is amplified by sophisticated bad actors…the tactics are too complex for the children, parents and individual members of the community can fight them alone.

Coester and his colleagues at WVU worked on a study using Instagram to fake a 13-year-old boy based in West Virginia. The researchers were able to replicate the type of internet access the hypothetical 13-year-old child would have, only tracked the accounts – often generated by bots – that follow the test account first, and used the plug passive decision making in order to see what type of content Instagram’s algorithm would deliver to the fake account.

“We thought we would see the toxic content slowly building up,” Coester said. “However, the account was full of targeted toxic content within just a few days. We realized – to our horror – that even though the content was bad and what we were seeing in the organic search we were doing on real networks, that the decision-making that the young people in our community were making was actually diluting the toxic content, left to its own devices it became toxic very quickly.

In their research, Coester said much of the toxic and extreme social media content and memes they have seen over the years can often be found used by young men to justify all kinds of violence, including mass shootings in schools and public places. What may begin as an innocent meme shared at the age of 10 can escalate into violent rhetoric and action within a decade.

Coester broke down the types of groups that often traffic memes and reports on social media. These include trolls/non-state actors who post content for the reaction it receives; state actors based in other countries trying to foment division within the United States; unorganized actors; organized extremist groups, such as known hate groups; groups with financial incentives, also called “arms dealers”.

Another problem is the algorithms that social media platforms use to deliver content based on the interests of those who already watch memes. Originally designed to keep users engaged for longer, they now take users further down rabbit holes and into extreme content they otherwise would never have encountered.

Coester said new regulations are needed in some cases regarding the liability of social media companies for the types of content on their platforms. But she’s also interested in the idea that the next generation of innovators are delivering solutions for the future and creating the kind of internet users that internet users can profit from.

“I’m torn between my thoughts on this as a researcher looking at platforms, teaching media law and ethics and all of those things, and then also as a parent,” Coester said. “Someone else that I really respect and admire in this space said we need to stop talking about how to reform the internet that we have and build the internet that we want. So that’s in somehow more exciting for me to think about heading into that space.

Coester is also the director and producer of “Raised By Wolves,” a documentary about Appalachian young men and youth culture.

Reporters also learned about research conducted at WVU on the harmful effects of children using phones, tablets and online technologies.

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