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Summer Scholar Series - Yongren Shi

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The rise of extremist ideology has been a growing international concern. U.S. mass killings linked to extremism, for example, have spiked over the last decade. These ideologies are often seen, fueled, and spread online. According to data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, the internet played a role in the radicalization of nearly three quarters of the exposed extremists between 2019 and 2022.

To better understand online radicalization, Yongren Shi, assistant professor of Sociology and Criminology has turned to today’s mecca of internet-conversation – Reddit.

Shi’s study uses computational approaches to analyze a now-shutdown digital community on Reddit that propagated extremist misogynist ideology.

“On Reddit, users form a commitment to each other similar to what you would see in religious cults, utopian communes, and startup companies,” Shi says. “Reddit also provides a sense of community boundaries for those who have sorted themselves in.”

The ability to "upvote" or "downvote" others' comments also allows Shi to examine sanctioning mechanisms. The unique combination of these three characteristics - the commitment, boundaries, and sanctioning - compels extremists to make the pilgrimage to and through Reddit, making it a platform apt for exploring the development of online misogynism.

In his initial analysis, Shi noted that the ideology is intensified through changes in community composition, increases in internalization, and modifications to conversational contexts, with the latter being the most prominent driver. As a next step, Shi is exploring the specific role that a decline in cognitive language adds to the context.

“When a set of ideas evolved in the conversation, people stopped questioning the validity of those ideas,” Shi reflects. “Instead, they would start to use simple language that signaled their identity.”

This summer, Shi hopes to further analyze the data he has collected on the Reddit thread’s language dynamics to eventually prepare a manuscript on his findings.