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What Do a Red Triangle, 14 Words, and 88 Ads Have in Common?

Symbols are powerful mass identity manipulation tools.

On Thursday, June 18th, Facebook removed ads that the Trump re-election campaign began running the day earlier, citing the company’s policy against promoting organized hate. At the center of the ads and of the controversy was an inverted red triangle. The same symbol was used by Nazis to mark political prisoners–Communists, Freemasons, people who had helped Jews–in concentration camps.

If your reaction is, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” consider also that the first sentence of the ads contained 14 words, and a total of 88 ads were purchased by the campaign to be run on Facebook.

Fourteen words, 14, symbolizes a popular alt-right slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Eighty-eight, 88, stands for Heil Hitler—H is the 8th letter of the alphabet. Together, 14-88 are often used to signal allegiance to an alt-right group and the ideas of White Supremacy.

A mentor used to say, "once is a coincidence; twice is a tendency; three times is a rule." So it would seem that in this case, the red triangle may not just be a red triangle, that it may stand for something else.

For what purpose would the President's re-election campaign transmit these symbols?

Mass identities—national, religious, ethnic, political—are so diverse that they are defined less by the in-group than by the out-group. Being Black can mean not being White or Hispanic; being Jewish can mean not being Muslim or Christian; being a Democrat can mean not being a Republican. “Us versus them” is the simplest way to mark a mass identity. Symbols, in their abstract simplicity, are uniquely suited for this. Highlighting the divide between the in-group and the out-group, us-versus-them, symbols set the stage for mass radicalization.

Experiments suggest that highlighting the group boundary makes people favor the in-group and discriminate against the out-group. This is true even if the groups are formed arbitrarily, by a coin flip.

Our flag reminds us of our national identity, defined by its difference from other national identities. As a result, we may favor the in-group (our nation) and denigrate the out-group (foreigners). Seeing an American flag, research indicates, can make American students more nationalistic (negative toward the out-group) and make them feel superior to non-Americans. Likewise, exposure to the German flag increased out-group prejudice among Germans.

Glimpsing the flag may not only increase out-group discrimination but also increase unity within the in-group. A study in Israel assessed participants’ political positions before subliminally exposing some participants to the Israeli flag. Those exposed to the flag voted more alike than those who hadn’t glimpsed the flag. A study in New Zealand found that New Zealanders subliminally exposed to the national flag were more mindful of the national values and norms, while no such effect was observed in foreigners.

Similar results emerge from studies of religious symbols. In France, people were more willing to sign up to be organ donors (consistent with the norms of Christianity) when the individual soliciting the donation wore a Christian cross. Similarly, a study in Chile showed that playing an economic game in a chapel produced more cooperation than playing it in a lecture hall.

And like national symbols, religious symbols can lead to greater out-group discrimination. Muslim students in Israel, primed with either symbols of Judaism or symbols of Islam, showed greater stereotyping and rejection of Israeli Jews.

Therefore, symbols can contribute to radicalization by highlighting mass identity, and by increasing stereotyping and rejection of the out-group.

Symbols can also radicalize by fostering pluralistic ignorance, a misconception about the opinions of other group members.

The display of group symbols asserts a group’s legitimacy, making the group appear more unified to outsiders. In times of crisis, symbol display may help restore the threatened mass identity. Thus, Americans displayed the national flag much more frequently on their cars, front lawns, and clothes following the 9/11 terrorist attacks than they did before. The symbol helped us cope with outside threats.

Pluralistic ignorance driven by symbols can legitimize a marginalized mass identity.

Spray-painted swastikas communicate hostile intentions of those who did the painting, but they also suggest the support of those who didn’t stop the painting. Perhaps there was no support; perhaps the swastikas were painted in the darkness, and every passerby since has silently cursed the vandals. But looking at the symbols, all the observers see is an unfettered assertion of one group’s claim to power. Supporters of the group will, therefore, feel reassured, and the opponents threatened, by the symbol’s presence. The more swastikas, the bigger and more assertive the group behind them seems.

A White Power symbol posted by the U.S. president’s re-election campaign, “Team Trump,” helps to legitimize the alt-right movement. When the symbol is shared by the U.S. president himself and by Vice President Pence, observers might wonder if many people actually condone the alt-right movement's goals and values.

Mass identities are fluid constructs. Nations, religions, and political parties persist only so long as enough people believe in them. Symbols express not only a belief in a mass identity but also a public commitment to it. Symbols prop up mass identities, assuring supporters, threatening opponents, and laying the foundation for mass radicalization.


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