WELCOME TO THE “DARK” SIDE!

It was probably two encounters that inspired me to finally get off my ass and start writing here.

The first encounter was my ongoing adventures in exploring hate on Facebook. I guess this is what you call a day job. I currently work as a research fellow for VOX-Pol, a network of researchers trying to understand the prevalence of violent political extremism online and what can be done about it. As there sometimes seems to be more people researching the social media strategies of ISIS than people doing it, I thought my contribution would be better-placed if I focused on its mirror image instead - the ongoing right wing radicalisation and the normalisation of racist hate speech online around the refugee crisis in Europe. I suppose this is what you call a “hot” research topic as it is both very controversial and contemporary.

Yet when exploring these “darker sides” of internet freedom — this abundant vitriol and hatred oozing out of Finnish Facebook forums — even a battle-hardened researcher like myself had to flinch. I take the poetic license to translate some of the things I found produced by the citizens of a country considered to have the best education system in the world.

“Thank you leaders …. I hope some muslim will make note and rape your daughters.”
“Those fucking rats should be exterminated from the world.”
“Gas them in the ovens”
“The multiculturalists should be all shot with a 9mm in the head and placed in the same hole with the filthy animals (refugees).”
“With an axe you can beat them quite nicely into pulp.”
“Their opinion would change if they are forcibly ass-raped for hours. “
“Why don’t we just shoot the refugees, throw them in a hole, and pour gasoline after them so the fire warms our feet in the winter cold.”

What is interesting here is that, before this project, I had just spent two years analysing hate speech in African countries. The language used by my fellow countrymen (and women) was much more graphic and violent than what I had encountered there. And if you compare this speech to the kind of speech that preceded genocide in countries such as Rwanda, all the similar ingredients were in place: explicit calls to violence, dehumanisation, comparison to animals or vermin, paranoid fear of persecution, rape fantasies etc.

Yet what was ever more curious about these statements was that many of them were posted by people with their own Facebook profiles, not by some anonymous trolls or lurkers. A gentle-looking Finnish father hugs his children with kind emotion in his Facebook profile and then suggests elsewhere that a “final solution” to the refugees in Finland may be now needed — and then adds that perhaps a few politicians promoting multiculturalism should be also thrown to the scorching ovens while at it.

The second encounter had to do with the kinds of messages my friends were posting online. It seems that this kind of speech was not confined to the fringe Facebook forums where I was explicitly seeking my dose of hatred. It was becoming rather mainstreamed in Europe (and elsewhere in the world). A friend asked with sincerity:

How do we citizens — not states, not politicians — prevent this perfect storm of alienation and marginalisation, unemployment and crime, racism and sexual violence, refugee arrivals and mass mis-/disinformation, popular extremism and xenophobic policies, and just general hatred and fear boiling in the populace from turning into endemic strife, revenge and vigilantism, large-scale violent unrest or even situations resembling civil war across Europe?
I am honestly and seriously asking — because I fear that the situation can spin out of control in so many places, any time. Beyond digging into our comfortable trenches of social media debate, or looking the other way… what can we do?

So these two encounters had me thinking. Maybe some of the research I was exploring needed to be made now public as it seemed it related to the concerns of many people around me growing equally weary-eyed with visions of the future. How then should we then approach this precarious relationship between such “extreme speech” online, the digital media platforms that seem to facilitate it, the measures adopted to prevent it, and the growing social conflict that many see boiling under the calm facade of European welfare states? And perhaps more crucially — as my friend asked — what can we do about it?

The internet is broken? Long live the internet.

These difficult questions touch on many fundamental questions I have about the future of communication (or the lack of it). In other words, if digital technology plays a part in the trends we are observing, what exactly then is this “dark side” our digital future is now increasingly drawn towards? What can be done about it, and what are some of its risks?

Let us take a step back and see where we can begin this conversation.

Yes, hate speech exists. But it always has. People have always used hateful language to justify their mass murder, rape and mutilation of other groups. We do not have to go far in history to see this (we also do not know is such speech is becoming more popular now or do we just have more access to it on social media). And, if you think about it, hate speech is actually not even that interesting intellectually. Debates about balancing freedom of speech and state security have existed ever since somebody decided it was a good thing we should disagree with each other. There are different legal traditions around this debated until boredom. Americans tend to have stronger protection on freedom of speech whereas the Europeans, on the contrary, tend to restrict certain kinds of speech more easily for historical reasons (such as speech linked to its Nazi past or incitements to violence). There are also many other traditions in different parts of the world I cannot even get into here ranging from restricting speech for political, social and religious and/or for whatever rhetorical reasons.

And, yes, there are serious problems with what seems to be a polarisation of populations in Europe exacerbated by the refugee crisis, often aided by the echoes of our own biases we hear in the online sites we frequent. But in all fairness, we have not yet seen widespread “ethnic” violence in Europe, at least of the kind where thousands are killed because they belong to the wrong creed or group. In the cold cycle of conflict, we are perhaps now somewhere between the confrontation/unstable peace and sporadic outbreaks of violence phase in Europe but it is unlikely that things will descend to acts of mass violence or all-out civil war as in other parts of the world.

What, however, is interesting about the current crisis are the growing calls to do something about it? This applies equally to the broader work done on preventing online radicalisation especially around the terrorist threat (and the increasing loud calls for measures of surveillance to be adopted to counter this) as well as the growing calls to control hateful speech online. Nobody seems to even agree whether the risks are real or are we just witnessing another round of “moral panics” that our mainstream media and social media creates to gain eyeballs that the terrorist and other groups exploit?

In his article “Hermes on the Hudson,” digital media scholar Geert Lovink argues that the Snowden revelations dealt the final blow to the emancipatory dreams people had about digital technology in bringing about a better world of prosperity, transparency, democracy, freedom of expression and more communication. Lovink writes that:

“The Snowden revelations in June 2013 mark the symbolic closure of the “new media” era. The NSA scandal has taken away the last remains of cyber-naivety and lifted the “internet issue” to the level of world politics.
….The radical disillusionment after Snowden should be classified as a secular version of the late-nineteenth-century discovery that God is Dead. However, the ecclesiastical censure of this age is non-technological in nature … There is an emerging consensus that “the internet is broken.

The pendulum has now swung to the dark side. Belsebub is laughing at us from behind an anonymous Facebook page. What is thus fascinating to me about the debates around hate speech online — and the broader debates on violent online political extremism associated with is — is the question of what will be done about it? What will be the future limits of free expression online, and what responsibility will individuals, politicians and corporations have in deciding what can and cannot be said online? In other words, if the internet is broken, how do we fix it? Who will fix it? Can we? Should we?

Ultimately, then, what the ongoing debates on racist hate speech online — and the debates on violent online extremism more broadly — show us are are glimpses of our digital future we now collectively dream into existence.

Welcome to my explorations of the “dark side.”