It Takes 6 Months to Turn a Standard Racist into a Nazi

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For the past few months, I’ve hosted a very niche podcast called Triggered with a friend of mine, Courtney Caldwell, focused on the video game Overwatch, which is now a professional e-sport. Every week, we talk about the matches and strategies and players. It’s fun.

While I enjoy the professional scene, Courtney is super gung ho* about it, cheering for one of the teams local to her in Texas: the Houston Outlaws. I cheer for my local team, the San Francisco Shock (and my hometown, the Philadelphia Fusion), but there’s a difference in the language we each use when talking about these teams. I (gently) mock Courtney for this but it’s only because I find it really interesting: when I talk about the teams I root for, I refer to them in the third person. “They won a map, they did well, they are absolute garbage,” etc. When Courtney talks about the Outlaws, she uses the first person: “We won a map, we did well, we are absolute garbage.” It’s completely unintentional, but it is a good indicator that her level of fandom is higher than mine, in that she unconsciously identifies as part of that team.

There’s nothing wrong with that in this case, of course (despite my mockery of her), but the same kind of language quirk can be used to tell when a person has fundamentally changed their thinking in a more dangerous way that I talk about often on this channel: radicalization.

Recently, Swedish researchers took a look at a popular online forum with more than a million users, which had a subforum focused on immigration that was mostly populated by people opposed to it. They were able to analyse the use of about 60 million words posted in that subforum, and chart their use from the moment a member started posting there until the present day.

What they found was that over time, new members started talking more and more like the existing members of the subforum — using the same language and diction that became the standard for that subforum. They also starting using “them” and “they” more often, referring to “others.”

Even more interestingly, in my opinion, is that the new members eventually stopped using “I” so often, replacing it with “we.” They were quite literally giving up their individuality to be a part of the group. As they integrated into the crowd of xenophobic nationalists, they were subconsciously becoming more likely to identify with the forumites while “othering” immigrants, driving them toward more radical ideology.

On average, it took a new member about six months of posting to make that change. Six months! Obviously this is just one study of one forum, and we don’t have hard information on exactly who these people were before or after they joined, but that’s such a quick change. It makes me think of all the people I know who had uncles or exes or cousins who, prior to the 2016 election, they may have described as conservative, and after seemed to become open, vocal racists. It’s remarkable how quickly humans can blend into a crowd — even a crowd of actual tiki torch-carrying Nazis.

And just to bring it back, it’s worth noting that this isn’t just a trait we see in jingoistic forum denizens. Pay attention to your own language — when do you say “we” instead of “I”? When do you say “I” instead of “they”? What groups do you subconsciously know you belong to, and how does that influence your own thought process? And how likely are you to get really upset when “your” team loses the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup? How likely are you to throw something? How likely are you to riot in the street? It might just depend on who you hang out with.

*This video script took a small detour when I typed that phrase and wondered why Americans say it and if it has any relevance to China. The history is kind of interesting, though not worth doing a video on it. Enjoy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I find a study like this very interesting in light of the (alleged) social media posting(s) from the Toronto van killer that are said to have included incel tropes. How long does it take a disgruntled sexist to transform to proud misogynist to vengeful incel?

    1. However long it takes to realize pickup artistry doesn’t work, of course. That was what took Elliot Rodger over the edge. (This happens with extremist ideologies as a whole: When they realize people don’t conform to their ideas, the extremist will lash out.)

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