In what seems like many eons ago, I thought of the Internet as a wonderful, life-enhancing thing. This was in the 1990s, when it was just emerging. Things before that were so limited. Getting hold of books, particularly if they were from outside the UK, took forever – or proved impossible. Getting things published was for a tiny number, it seemed. The appearance of a bunch of new platforms seemed so liberating.
That truly was an age of cyber-innocence. No one then considered a world where we have the Dark Web, Trolls, online stalking and bullying. Julia Ebner does refer to this a lot in her work on the truly terrifying world of online extremists. The issue is not so much that the Internet distorts the real world and human nature. It reflects it all too realistically, warts and all. In fact, it makes those warts utterly unambiguous and obvious. It bring into stark daylight what we once could relatively easily ignore.
Ebner has gone undercover, infiltrating online hard right communities, and then going to their music events in Germany and interacting with their key ideologues and leaders. These are people, she explains, who use the benign excuse of defending freedom of speech to then produce some of the most horrifying statements. They are anti-Semitic, frequently holocaust deniers, and some make as their pastime sending congratulatory or abusive messages to parents whose children have committed suicide. Into this appalling mix come the single, young, male fraternity, who have established a niche area full of misogyny, in which women are labelled as persecutors because of their unwillingness to have relationships on the terms and with the kind of people these networks attract.
This is a world simmering with dizzying amounts of enmity, fear, anger and resentment. The problem is that online platforms and deeply manipulative activists have managed to seep into the mainstream. Far right parties like the AfD in Germany, have come close to read power. Some of their key followers have backgrounds as proponents of racial supremacy theories. Many talk of the need for purity and a restoration of white power, in particular. Hitler and National Socialism (Nazism) are held up as attractive models and serve as a source of inspiration for them. They have found ways of using the symbols and iconography of the Nazi party, despite rules in Germany militating against this.
The response of policy makers has been variable. Moving too far means arousing worries about attacking free speech. Many have chosen to look at regulation. But even when vast platforms like Twitter and Facebook attempt to implement these (with varying degrees of success) ones like 4Chan, where pretty much anything goes, provide an alternative. In any case, as Ebner makes clear, regulation is simply a case of focusing on the results, and does nothing to deal with the root causes. The problem is that in our societies there are a large number of people with issues which lead to anger, prejudice, fear and hatred towards others. These end up having very complex causes and outcomes. Regulating does nothing to address these.
Why this matters is that things in the virtual world increasingly have real world impact. Ebner refers to the revolting spectacle of seeing the New Zealand mass shooting in 2019 which resulted in over 50 deaths as it was live streamed by an Australian who had been expressing extremist ideas for years. He was proof that for some of these people, the words are not just where it ends. They are willing to take their hatreds outside and do things. Mass shootings in synagogues, churches and of ethnic minority groups have all happened in recent years in the US. The terrifying prospect is that at some point these might reach some kind of critical mass. The insurrection that many key spokespeople of the extreme right wing world speak of will be upon us.
This is no idle speculation. As `Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’ (Bloomsbury, 2020) (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/going-dark-9781526616784/) shows, to the online community of the extreme right, the election of Trump in the US was a great moment. Despite contempt for him as a person, his views were regarded as beneficial to bringing them an even larger platform. They mostly regarded him as their useful idiot. The clashes, which resulted in the death of one demonstrator, in Charlottesville in August 2017 were a manifestation of how it is increasingly possible for members of groups once believed to be beyond the pale like he Ku Klux Clan to appear and express their views in public. The `normalisation’ of opinions previously regarded as taboo has been assisted not just by the Internet, but by public worries over immigration in Europe, the fear of terrorist attacks from militant Islamic groups, and a generally rising tide of anxiety. A seemingly apocalyptic event like the current Covid19 global crisis stands a very good chance of only exacerbating this situation.
Ebner’s book is a terrifying one. One just hopes it is also proves to be about a phenomenon that ends up retreating to the margins of society. This is no criticism. For a work like this, about a theme like this, the best thing it can do is worry enough people to do whatever they can to countering some of the hateful views expressed by figures profiled here, sending them back to the small and unpleasant space they belong to. Believing in a common human community would make a good start. That’s if the current leaders of the world leave much of it after their current campaigns and incompetence. We will see.