Do social networks breed extremists?

  • Article by: CASS R. SUNSTEIN , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: July 31, 2013 - 2:17 AM

New research suggests the Nazis arose among, not the lonely, but the well connected — and other extremists can, too.

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In recent decades, many social scientists have drawn attention to the importance of “social capital.” The term is meant to capture the value, economic and otherwise, that comes from social networks, through which people frequently interact with one another. But what if social capital ends up contributing to the rise of extreme movements, including fascism?

It is well-established that individuals and societies can gain a great deal from civic institutions, such as parent- teacher associations, athletic leagues, churches and music clubs. High levels of social capital have been associated with numerous social benefits, including improvements in health, promise-keeping, trust, altruism, compliance with the law, child welfare and individual happiness.

Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam has done a great deal to explore the beneficial effects of social capital. In his book “Bowling Alone,” he documented what he saw as its decline in the United States, connecting that decline with a wide range of social problems.

Pointing to research by Putnam and others, many have argued that the U.S. and other nations should make a sustained effort to measure and increase social capital, with particular attention to civic associations that help to generate it.

At the same time, social capital can have a dark side. If people are in a social network whose members are interested in committing crimes, social capital will promote criminal activity. A fascinating recent study called “Bowling for Fascism” goes much further: It shows that the rise of Nazism was greatly facilitated by unusually high levels of social capital in Weimar Germany.

The research offers an important and novel perspective on Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power. And by identifying conditions that help to spread extremism, it also offers lessons for the present, including the risk of terrorism.

The study, conducted by New York University’s Shanker Satyanath and his co-authors, is based on a wide range of original materials, including Nazi Party membership lists and hand-collected data from 112 German towns. The central question: Who was most likely to join the Nazi Party?

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Germany had an exceptionally vibrant civil society that included clubs involved in hiking, animal breeding, shooting, gymnastics, bowling, fire fighting and singing. The authors’ principal finding is that in cities with dense networks of clubs and associations, Germans were far more likely to join the Nazi Party. In their words, “a dense fabric of civic associations went hand-in-hand with a more rapid rise of Nazi party membership.”

It could be suggested that some independent factor, such as socioeconomic status or religion, accounts both for associational activity and for willingness to join the Nazi Party. But even if we control for these and other variables, a dense network of civic associations is correlated with significantly higher rates of entry into the Nazi Party.

This finding undermines the view, held by some, that the Nazi Party succeeded by appealing to people who were socially isolated, the lonely and the rootless. The evidence strongly suggests that Nazism spread in part as a result of face-to-face interactions by people who were in frequent contact with one another.

Consider the chilling remarks of a Nazi Party member who recalled his growing acquaintance “with a colleague of my own age with whom I had frequent conversations. He was a calm, quiet person whom I esteemed very highly. When I found out that he was one of the local leaders of the National Socialist party, my opinion of it as a group of criminals changed completely.”

The authors’ central findings fit well with emerging research on the immense importance of social influences on individual behavior. With respect to music, political convictions, voting and food, we constantly learn from others. Like-minded people tend to go to extremes, in large part because they learn from each other. Within nations and around the world, modern social media connect disparate people and hence build social capital, intensifying social influences on thought and behavior.

For the current period, there is a straightforward lesson. Individuals and nations generally benefit from large numbers of private associations, including sports clubs, religious groups and parent-teacher associations. But in some nations, dense social networks also increase people’s vulnerability to extremism. A great deal of work suggests that terrorism itself can arise not because people are isolated, poor or badly educated, but because they are part of tightly knit networks in which hateful ideas travel quickly.

No one should doubt that private associations are desirable and valuable, and that they can produce a dazzling range of social goods, including checks on the power of government. But Satyanath and his co-authors reveal another possibility: that such associations can facilitate the spread of extremism, ultimately laying the groundwork for challenges to democracy itself.

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Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School.

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