Radicalization occurs more and more often on the internet. Would radicalization be quite as pronounced as it is, in our globalized world, without the world-wide web? Of course, the internet is a means, or tool. But is it just an empty case? No. The internet is not a neutral container but it carries content. Some good, some bad.
Communication on the web ought to be more moderate than it is, in many instances. Social media can reinforce non-online worries and hate, just as they can be a way to convey factual and peaceful communication. Who is still offline nowadays? It would be a mistake to assume that ‘haters’ are violent in ‘real life’ and always peaceful on the internet. That is why tech companies mobilize many resources to counter online hate and extremism.
Of course, most people, other than those conveying online hate, abide by the rules, at times of the day when they are offline just as when they are connected to the internet. Which is a blessing. But the communication of those who do not abide by the rules is problematic – sometimes highly problematic. Historically, things started with emails, even though we tend think in terms of modern social media. Communication has accelerated tremendously. It is impossible to compare the number of people holding extremist positions offline with the number of those who hold them online. There are no plain numbers as far as extremism goes. But hate does take place online, in a large number of cases.
Not a Space of Total Innocence
In our time, we have to see the internet as part of life, not apart from life. Just as there are sanctions against crime in the old, non-digital world, there must be sanctions online. Even if it is only question of taking content off the grid. The big tech companies have realized that, and are in the process of finding practical solutions. They are already applying solutions.
But this is not the key academic question. Hate is dangerous. And internet hate, where and when it occurs, is like the next level of gossip. Because of filter bubbles, i.e. secluded spaces reinforcing what groups already think, and because of the ease in which messages can be shared.
In the end, it is relevant to determine whether the internet contributes to hate and radicalization, reinforcing individual grudges that can lead to violence. It is insufficient to only find out whether a radicalized attacker spread hate online in the aftermath. No, it is online hate, existing even before violence occurs, what we should counter.
By the way, there is also purely online violence, unfortunately, although we should see internet as a major part of life as such. Online violence are audiovisual displays of cruelty, or hacking and the spread of viruses. We cannot be complacent in light of this. We cannot be complacent in light of hate. And we cannot be lay back and let things be in the face of tangible violence caused, in part or fully, by the internet.
Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
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