Reading Time: 3 minutesWith the election of Donald Trump, there was a mixture of glee sprinkled in with the horror in the world of reporters and opinion writers. The new president was an easy target, both for his outrageous statements and for the ever growing cast of leaks which surrounded him, on everything from his alleged charity to work […]
Reading Time: 2 minutesConsidering the many rights which we routinely see trampled upon in the news today, making the case of access to the internet seems a little frivolous. After all, this the era when millenials are pilloried for avocado toast on Instagram, whilst we’re told by a succession of psychologists and journalists that smartphones are destroying the […]
Reading Time: 3 minutesThe old adage for dealing with dealing with online abuse was ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ – a statement based on the premise that they could fundamentally dealt with like offline bullies. By refusing to give them the emotional response and the attention which they crave, the argument went, they would get bored and move off […]
Reading Time: 2 minutesFew pet peeves have attracted the ire of Donald Trump as much as the Iran nuclear deal completed by his predecessor. President Obama’s 2015 action was meant to reshape policy in the region, breaking the long-standing divide between the Shia powerhouse and the US which dates back to late 1970s, and which had only intensified […]
Reading Time: 5 minutesAs the star of ISIS (apparently) begins to fade, it is perhaps worth interrogating its vision of returning to Islam in its original, pure form. A Salafi Islamist movement, ISIS seeks to purge contemporary Islam of its heretical accretions. Its English-language magazine Dabiq, explains that the Khilafah [caliphate] could not be established except through a jama’ah [group] […]
The standard for elected leaders in the free world has plummeted incredibly over the past year or so. In Britain, Theresa May has been hobbling since the General Election, surrounded by hyenas. Her speech at the Conservative Party conference almost received sympathy from all quarters, even as factions within the Tories move against her. Over the Pond, Donald Trump’s fan base has continued to shrink as he picks fights with Puerto Rico (in the wake of Acts of God), North Korea (as their nuclear arsenal expands) and Iran (as they stick to their agreement), whilst calling some white nationalists ‘good people’. No matter how you massage the facts, it’s clear that it’s not been the easy ride which he appeared to envision when it comes to ‘draining the swamp’.
But Emmanuel Macron – young, charismatic, pro-EU – looked like he might buck the trend. A former Minister of Economy and Finance with a maverick streak, his meteoric rise to take the Elysée (snatching it away from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National) was the stuff of liberal dreams. Then, his party En Marche! – a mixture of veteran politicians and political neophytes drawn from across society – beat critics in legislative elections, crushing both the established parties and the Front National.
For Europhiles, this was welcome news, with suggestions that it meant that the populist groundswell which had overtaken the Anglo-American world was over. Whilst the Dutch elections in March had created a fractured political system (albeit one in which the far right candidate Geert Wilders was locked out of power sharing agreements), Macron’s victory was virtually complete. A fresh-faced figure – in spite of his past as a minister under an unpopular government – the prospects looked bright in May.
With the end of the year drawing near, it’s difficult not to imagine that those who were most enthusiastic about Macron might be feeling somewhat disappointed. His performance at a recent TV appearance seems to epitomise the mixture of bravado and arrogance for which he’s become well-known, with attacks on those who disagree with him bearing a somewhat disturbing resemblance to another president. Whilst Trump may have gone after the press more viciously (decrying them as liars in the pay of his enemies), Macron has taken a more contemptuous if equally dismissive route – his thoughts were ‘too complex’ for journalists, a spokesmen declared back in June. At a time when technocrats have come under routine attack, it seemed a remarkably bold approach.
That he made the television appearance at all was a sign that his complex thoughts had not translated into successful actions. His aims for a stronger Eurozone have been stymied by the German elections, which saw the once redoubtable Angela Merkel significantly reduced in stature, as the economic heart of the EU made a decisive shift towards the Eurosceptic right. At the same time, Macron has shown he’s just as keen to keep France’s interests at heart as any of his predecessors, angering other EU nations – he swooped in with the might of the French government to nationalise the STX shipyard, keeping it from Italian hands, much to Rome’s annoyance.
And worst of all, his attempts at labour reforms have largely stalled. His declaration that those opposing him were ‘slackers’ galvanised a popular movement against the former banker’s attempts to loosen regulations – although, as the Guardian notes, the numbers were bigger under Macron’s universally unpopular predecessor Francois Hollande. At a time when the French economy has been stagnant for years, it’s difficult to draw consolation from this latest turn of events.
In the bigger picture this is deeply distressing: Macron’s brand of centrism offered one of the few plausible antidotes to populism in Europe. Marine Le Pen may have lost out on the election this time, but the president’s mixture of aloofness combined with failures to enact policy suggest that the next time around, France might not be so lucky.
Whilst British politics has been in turmoil over the past few months (even ignoring Theresa May’s disastrous speech to her own party), Europe’s attention has been rather rudely diverted by events in Austria. After the shock success of the Alternative fur Deutschland at Germany’s elections shattered the nation’s belief in its immunity to populism, legislative elections at Austria appear to have done the same there.
It’s not an entirely unexpected turn of events there, admittedly. Over the course of a twisted presidential election last year, the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (the Freedom Party of Austria or FPO) received the most votes in the first round, only to lose out in the second against the Green Party. Then, the whole election was declared void due to apparent irregularities in the process. Finally, the FPO was defeated in December 2016, but gained a respectable 46% of the vote.
At first glance, the victory of the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (OVP) under Sebastian Kurz is less significant than the FPO’s presidential performance. Whilst it has anti-immigrant rhetoric, the OVP is broadly speaking a less extreme party, defined by economic liberalism and Catholicism. But an alliance between the OVP and FPO now seems likely, and would have the precedent of an earlier coalition as recently as 2002.
In essence, this gives the FPO a run at power on its key issues: most notably immigration, euroscepticism, and Islam. Where the centre (both in Austria and in the European Union at large) would have provided a bulwark against changes on these fronts in 2002, the situation today is almost unrecognisable, with Britain leaving, Germany lurching rightwards from under Angela Merkel’s feet, and Emmanuel Macron, the greatest supporter of Eurozone integration, isolated and losing popularity fast. Instead, as Politico reports, Austria is joining a vaunted club of Central European countries whose leading political movements (Fidesz in Hungary, and PiS in Poland) care little for Brussels and even less for Muslim refugees. A dangerous and growing isolationism, tied to archaic ideals of national identity (often carefully skirting the knottier bits of history).
That broader context is what makes the groundswell of right-wing populism so dangerous, creating a cycle in which parties in neighbouring countries see the successes of these ideologies and find themselves emboldened. There doesn’t seem to be a master plan for a grand European populist alliance as yet, in part because Europe is a messy patchwork built by generations of wars and treaties (the FPO, for example, demands part of Tirol – historically an Austrian province – back from Italy) – and yet each victory is a blow against the EU.
In light of all that, Theresa May’s situation looks a little less grim. Britain might be a ship with no clear helmsman, but the mood in Europe, towards the idea of Europe – tempered by the refugee crisis of 2015, growing ethnonationalist tensions, and a general displeasure with neo-liberal elites – is turning increasingly ugly. Brussels’ power has taken yet another blow, and this is unlikely to be the last.
The history of humanity has in large part depended upon transportation. Civilisations have always been reliant upon supplies of food, water, and other amenities for expansion (both military and civil), and later for trade. The ox-cart gave way to the ‘iron horse’ and later to the trucks which still perform a major part of goods transportation in both the Global North and South. Whilst container ships – with the immense Post Panamax (that is, too big even for the Panama Canal) capable of hauling in the region of 120,000 tonnes – remain key internationally and for moving goods between distant regions, and whilst trains offer easier delivery of freight over long distances on land, the truck remains the most important vehicle for last mile deliveries.
And with trucks, come drivers, introducing an all too common element of friction. There’s the question of the number of hours which they should able to work: whilst drivers and their unions often push for lengthier periods, claiming that strict limits ignore down time on long journeys, their employers have largely resisted this. In America, moves to install tracking devices in trucks to ensure that drivers are adhering to the set times have claims of a ‘Big Brother’ mentality.
And then there’s the issue of the environment. Progressively more eco-friendly regulations, combined with a relative slowness on the part of automakers to take up this issue has created a conundrum for drivers. On the one hand, they can stick to older vehicles, which are much more analogue, cheaper to fix, and have limited resale value but emit massive levels of pollution. On the other, they can make the switch to new trucks which abide by the rules at high costs – and potentially face catastrophe, as in New York and New Jersey, where new, green, trucks certified by the Port Authority suffered from self-combustion. Independent drivers who had traded in their old vehicle to be scrapped found themselves reduced to working in fleets, where their autonomy was greatly reduced.
But this might just be tip of the iceberg for truckers, as autonomous vehicle technology could completely wipe out the profession. Whilst it remains highly experimental at this stage, August saw trials of wi-fi technology to allow platoons of autonomous trucks to drive together. For firms, aside from prohibitive costs and regulatory scepticism of driverless vehicles, they seem to offer a boon – there’d be no need to limit hours for robot drivers, or worry about them driving tired, or having issues to do with pay.
And yet who would the fault for crashes lie with – the company which produced the vehicles, or the companies which operate them? And will we see this technology spreading elsewhere in the goods industry, with talk of autonomous cargo vessels already appearing. How far governments offer supportive legislation – or at least lift the many barriers to the driverless future – will ultimately be crucial to how far these changes move.
Godmen are hardly new to India – in fact, the image of the charismatic figure, perhaps in saffron, with a flock of devoted followers hanging off every parlour trick, is practically a cliche. They come in different varieties – some claim to cleave to Hinduism, others are more lax on their religious heritage – but at their core, all share a similar callous disregard for human autonomy and a commitment to finding fame and fortune.
Some of the stories are borderline ridiculous – take Guru Ashutosh Maharaj, whose body has been left in a freezer since a fatal heart attack three years ago. Whilst his family want it back, his devotees are convinced he’s just meditating, and that sticking the corpse in a deep freeze is the closest thing to the calming environment of the distant Himalayas. But this isn’t the story of irrational superstitions so much as it’s a tale of greed: the late Ashutosh had property in the order of $160 million. It’s hard to be so convinced of the purely religious piety of his followers when that much money is floating around.
If there was one godman who best epitomised the worst of the trend, it’s been Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh – the man whose arrest for carrying out the rape of two young followers sparked rioting which lead to the deaths of more than 30 individuals. Singh, in spite of his supposedly aescetic religious background, was known for gaudy jewellery, large-scale civic hygiene events, and a series of movies starring himself as, essentially, a God. If there was any doubt about this humility, his decision to essentially dress up as a Sikh religious figure should have put paid to that, sparking riots between his followers and orthodox Sikh groups – a prelude to the more recent, deadlier violence he initiated.
Singh is not the only member of his movement to be dubbed ‘eccentric’ at the least. His adopted daughter, Honeypreet Insan, had starred in several of Singh’s movies, and has 1.2 million followers on Twitter – not an insignificant following, considering that she is now in police custody under suspicion of having organised the riots surrounding Singh’s arrest. Her website paints her as a world-renowned actress and director rather than a felon.
The problem of religious zealots is not a peculiarly Indian one; neither is the problem of religions acting as cash cows. But the central role which godmen like Singh play in politics is less common in other states, where the religious fringe is treated as the religious fringe for good reason. Singh has been courted by both the Congress Party and the BJP, India’s largest political parties. For India’s politicians, he was a convenient vote bank, offering access to large numbers of voters. Whilst they might have sent in police forces to help restore order after his followers had gone on the rampage, politicians had effectively allowed Singh to become the problem that he was.
Other controversial godmen have found similar succour from the state – Asaram Bapu, another convicted rapist, had received massive grants of land from Congress and BJP governments. By using them as middle men, India’s political system chooses to ignore the problems which create them – rampant inequality, religious intolerance, and the remnants of the caste system all play a part. By failing to deal with godmen, India’s politicians have fundamentally neglected these issues – and the citizens plagued by them.
The murder of Jo Cox in the run-up to Brexit was shocking not merely for the fact that it was the first killing of a British MP in over 20 years. The words her killer, Thomas Mair, shouted – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – marked a return of British white supremacy which had last had its heyday in the 1990s.
Whilst more electorally focussed versions of white nationalism have persisted and gained support over the past decade – most notably in the brief surge of support the British National Party (BNP) received under Nick Griffin – the last decade of the 20th century had marked a high-point in the indigenous white nationalist movement (as opposed to US or European imported groups). Neo-Nazi groups centred in the UK included Combat 18 (the number standing for the letters ‘AH’, Hitler’s initials) and Blood & Honour, which hosted the formerly flourishing white nationalist music scene. For groups like these, which had evolved from post-WWII fascists and disillusioned imperialists with ill-disguised antipathy for immigrants from former colonies, the high point of their publicity came in April 1999 – courtesy of a 22 year old called David Copeland.
A former BNP member, Copeland had read ‘The Turner Diaries’, William Luther Pierce’s dystopian novel and handy manifesto for the budding fascist. In 1995 it had made the headlines in America when Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was discovered with pages from the novel (which describes an attack on an FBI building) – a screed which called for radical warfare against the state. Copeland turned to explosives himself, but he targeted another typical fascist target – non-white Britons, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. His attacks killed three and wounded another 140.
It’s probably unfair to call Copeland’s attack the catalyst for the failure of the British far-right scene – the deaths of key members of groups like Combat 18 through factional infighting also played a role. At any rate, the early 21st century saw the apparent transition of the old street fighting outfits to electoral politics.
Mair’s actions shattered this illusion, especially as his words were rapidly coopted by a previously little known group, National Action. With its roots in Yorkshire (which has traditionally played host to the BNP and other far-right outfits), the group had only been founded in 2013 – but it nevertheless is the only far-right group proscribed in Britain. The status has conferred upon it a great deal of respect in white supremacist forums, seeming validation of the state control which Pierce’s Turner Diaries ‘predicted’ – not bad going, considering attempts in 2015 to organise a rally in Liverpool ended with National Action members hiding behind the shutters of a shop at Liverpool Lime Street Station.
In styling, National Action offers a blend of the peculiarly British and the distinctly transnational – a technique borrowed from the broader alt-right. Where older iterations of the website from 2013 show a particular approach which mimicked the National Front, focusing on immigrants, the group has increasingly opted for a broader symbolism. One of the most recent examples of its home page featured Anglo-Saxon imagery alongside the broader, pseudo-academic ideology which has been popularised by Richard Spencer and others in America – and which is increasingly developing in continental Europe and Britain.
60 years ago (and 25 years after its founding), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enacted what would become the most famous example of gender inequality – a ban on female drivers. In spite of a series of protests in the 1990s which lead to the arrests of several women for driving, the kingdom’s stance on the matter seemed inflexible (bar sporadic comments from King Salman that changes would come when they were ‘ready’.)
So the announcement a week ago that the longstanding law would at last be lifted was greeted as a victory for women’s rights in the kingdom. Certainly, it suggests that public pressure can have an impact on even the most recalcitrant of nation-states, trumping ideological purity. Was this, suggested some more optimistic thinkers, a sign of greater things to come? Women had their first chance to vote at local elections just two years ago.et law, but not removed, certainly. As publications including The Week, a large number of rights remain outside of the domain of Saudi Arabian women including wearing make-up, trying on clothes, or make a number of major decisions including getting married or divorced.
In the context of these wider, continuing restrictions, it’s not difficult to see this as a piece of clever publicity, seeking to remove the most unpleasant and visible aspects of gender inequality. Nevertheless, more conservative elements reacted with considerable anger in spite of the state’s considerable attempts to clamp down on dissent. Whilst it’s unlikely to catalyse anything larger, it suggests a potential divide between the most hard-line elements of the religious establishment and the monarchy.
On the other hand, it’s possible to view this as simply a step in a wider move towards a modernisation of the traditional recalcitrant nation-state under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rise to power has upset the traditional order. At 31 years of age, he represents a challenge to the traditional and highly ossified hierarchy of the country – and potentially represents what’s needed for a country struggling with monopolies, fallen oil prices, and increasing (if still relatively impotent) discontent amongst a young populace with access to the internet.
Reading Time: 6 minutesThere has long been an assumption that on balance, technological advancement is always a good thing. I would like to challenge this assumption, in two ways: First, let us consider the past. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the now infamous Luddites tried and failed to stop technological progress. They are now considered […]
In 2012, a group of German luminaries of some stature – including a former state secretary of Hesse, a veteran journalist, and a professor of macroeconomics – started a party as an alternative to Angela Merkel’s government. The Eurozone crisis was at its fiercest, with Grexit looking significantly more likely than Brexit as austerity measures grew increasingly unpopular and Brussel’s patience with the southern European state grew thin.
The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (Alternativ für Deutschland or AfD)began with a manifesto which received the support of journalists, thought leaders and professors who agreed that the Euro was increasingly becoming an unstable and ineffective currency for Germany to participate in. Many of its early members – including Alexander Gauland, former state secretary – were drawn from Merkel’s own Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), a traditionally conservative party which retained a deeply conservative aspect, fiscally as well as socially.
At a time when the EU’s woes were marked by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was hard to imagine that the party would become the de facto voice of Germany’s xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment – ending the decades long claim by the country’s politicians that the nation’s history immured it to populist hatred.
Back in 2012, a Eurosceptic party in the heart of the Eurozone’s most powerful and industrious nation was enough to make quite a splash. At first glance, its showing at the 2013 federal elections wasn’t so promising – it achieved just 4.7% of the vote, about one and a half percent more than UKIP in 2010, and missing out on entering the Bundestag. But German’s fractured electoral system, which relies upon alliances between parties with often disparate goals, made this showing considerably more potent – especially as the other smaller parties all lost a few percentage points. Nevertheless, the union of Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU) received a 41.5% of the votes, putting it within spitting distance of an absolute majority.
The AfD was not phased by this, and entered the European Parliamentary elections in 2014 with enthusiasm, reaping just over 7% of the national vote, with its seven members joining the European Conservatives and Reformists group alongside the Tories and other major European conservative parties. 2014 marked a turning point in the group’s fortunes, with state elections that year and in 2015 providing further proof of a German swing to Euroscepticism.
It was to be in 2015 that the anti-immigrant, xenophobic party which the AfD is known as today emerged, as Frauke Petry, a self-described national-conservative, took control of the party, moving it away from the economic conservatism which had marked its early stages. Instead, it became the party which most readily capitalised upon Angela Merkel’s choice to welcome refugees fleeing from ISIS. If dissent towards the Eurozone had been shocking, an uncomfortably mainstream party with anti-immigrant, pro-Russian leanings was horrifying – hinting at a strain of politics which Germany had long claimed to reject.
All of which made the 2017 election so disturbing. Not only did the CDU and CSU return with a significantly reduced majority of 32.9% – a sign that Merkel’s support for refugees had significantly if not fatally dented her popularity within her own party – but the AfD surged to take 12.6% of the vote, clearing the barrier to gain representation in the Bundestag and becoming the third largest party.
In terms of practical politics, the other German parties have done their best to exclude the AfD: politics there has traditionally been based on alliances, allowing Merkel to stay in power without an absolute majority. But the challenge she faces can’t be ignored: her most likely allies, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and Die Grünen (The Green Party),are at odds with each other politically, and unlikely to have great faith in the future of the CDU-CSU.
Yet the AfD’s path to further political disruption is unclear. Petry announced her resignation co-chair shortly after the election – perhaps ironically as part of a belief that the party’s ever more radical bent (with current leader and founder Alexander Gauland clamouring for recognition of Wehrmacht soldiers) will doom it to the position of a noisy but perennial opposition. But regardless of the political change it enacts, the AfD’s success this year mark a new high-water mark for populism – and a new ebb for those who saw Germany as the ‘special case’ of Europe.
India has long prided itself on being the world’s most populous democracy, in contrast to its nominally Communist neighbour to the north-east. Journalism, usually considered a key tenant of free societies, dates back to the colonial era – in 1871, Irish surgeon James Hickey started a paper in Bengal. Hickey, who had fallen out of grace with the local governor Warren Hastings, used the venture as an attempt to ‘speak truth to power’, accusing him of being a tyrant.
Unsurprisingly, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette lasted approximately a year in total, but it would symbolically pave the way for a press unafraid to take on the government. Gandhi himself founded Young India after his release from jail in the 1920s, as a vehicle to disseminate his message in favour of non-violent protest against British rule.
So it is doubly disturbing that a constant stream of Indian journalists have been killed in recent years. For a country which continues to point to sister states Pakistan and Sri Lanka as examples of poor press freedom, the world ranking suggest otherwise: India comes in at 136 on the Reports sans Frontieres Press Freedom Rankings, just three above Pakistan and five above Sri Lanka. The killing of Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh – just one of many – have brutally exposed this.
It’s true that this isn’t the first time in India’s history that the press has come under sustained attack. Most famously, for 21 months between 1975 and 1977, Indira Gandhi ruled the country by decree in what became known simply as The Emergency. In with campaigns of forced sterilisations orchestrated by her son Sanjay, the arrests of regional opposition leaders, and the essential end of habeus corpus, the power was cut off to printing presses. In one of India’s most famous obituaries, The Times of India carried this:
“D.E.M O’Cracy, beloved husband of T Ruth, loving father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on June 26.”
But the simple fact of the matter is that journalists in India have rarely been safe. Since 1992, the Committee to Protect Journalists has listed 68 journalists and 3 media workers as killed, over half covering politics or corruption. The difference today is perhaps in the callousness – or even delight with which the murders are considered amongst audiences and even fellow journalists.
Lankesh’s death was treated as just vengeance by nationalists incensed by her critique of Brahminical politics and the ruling BJP, and her support for non-military options when dealing with the Naxalites (Communist insurgents prevalent in India’s Eastern ‘Red Corridor’). As reported in The Wire, an Indian online publication, elements of India’s right wing sought to place the blame on Naxalites who had turned on her, or sought to defame her by association with student dissidents.
And where Lankesh made the headlines, dozens others have not. KJ Singh, a veteran editor , was stabbed to death along with his mother in their home in what police consider a professional killing. Bengali journalist Santanu Bhowmik was abducted and murdered whilst covering clashes between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Tripura, allegedly by members of the former (although many questions still remain to be answered on this front). The IPFT is aligned with the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP lead power bloc, though as with anything in Indian politics,
And those are just this year: at least five more were murdered last year (according to the Committee to Protect Journalists), and another four in the year before that (and the list seems woefully incomplete, not yet updating for the killings of Singh or Bhowmik). Previous victims included Rajdev Randan (who had worked on stories about a political leader from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a Bihari political party.
With strong nationalist and theocratic tendencies under the current government (which treats any dissent as ‘anti-national’), coupled with equally potent and ruthless regional parties keen to push for their own agenda, it is hard to see the situation resolving any time soon.
There’s very little that can’t be blamed on the internet, in the grand tradition of new technologies. The same arguments which paint cyberspace as a corrupting, seductive force have long been laid at the feet of television, gaming, and practically any innovation. And yet it’s hard not to feel that there’s something palpable in those claims. The internet is a very different space to classical mass media because it allows for grassroots engagement, easier dissemination, and far fewer boundaries on what behaviour acceptable. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this is in the extremism – Islamist, fascist, secessionist, and otherwise – that it has fostered, and the hate speech it has normalised. Online anonymity, a blessing in illiberal regimes, has also proven a vital tool for the intolerant to organise actions and to spread their messages.
The leaders of both America and Britain have been outspoken on their condemnation of the internet. In the wake of the Parsons Green attack, Donald Trump tweeted that the internet was “the main recruitment tool” for (Jihadi) terrorists, adding, “we must cut [it] off & use [it] better!” Theresa May had called for similar regulations following the London Bridge attack, blaming social media for creating “safe spaces” for terrorists seeking to maximise the damage they inflict. End-to-end encryption, which became a flashpoint following the San Bernadino attack, has only become more contested since then.
Another group of extremists, white nationalists, have been equally adept at using the internet: leaks from popular gaming chat app Discord reveal how it has been adapted as a convenient tool for neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates (amongst other hate groups) to stage their mass rally at Charlottesville. More aggressive use – such as using blogging platforms to host online campaigns of abuse against political opponents – has also become a worryingly normalised phenomenon. And in a revelation that shamed a tech scene already uncomfortably hands-off when it comes to policing extremist content, it was revealed that Facebook and Google had both set up their systems in such a way that it supported racist advertisers.
Of course, not all hate speech promises imminent violence – and the idea of hate speech is itself culturally relative, a construct far more prevalent in Europe than in America, which instead prizes the First Amendment freedom of speech. But even focusing specifically on ideas of violent extremism, and we hit roadblocks. How much leeway should a government receive when it comes to choosing who is an extremist? The Trump administration, for example, has been sheepish at best when dealing with those on the far-right, which rather undermines any assumption that the correct groups will always be targeted. Not to mention historical state support for extremist groups abroad.
That’s not to say that the tech sector is any better. For years, it peddled the claim that it was simply a provider of services, and that the content on them was none of its responsibility – an abdication of any moral authority. But in the wake of Charlottesville and in fear of growing public outrage, we saw a number of services whir into action to cut off hate speech. Perhaps most memorable was Cloudflare, a service used by white nationalists to protect their websites and which had previously been outspoken about their commitment to allow them to remain as customers. The murder of a protester at Charlottesville was seemingly the only thing which made them react, booting off prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. It’s a worryingly ad hoc state of play in which internet service providers are the arbiters of public good.
And even assuming that we find a body, public or private, who we trust to push extremism out of the digital space, do they have the power to do it? This is a tricky one: on the one hand, there is some evidence from Reddit that shutting down specific areas for hate speech can push commentators into other zones where they’re less likely to behave so egregiously. On the other hand, the dark web (accessible through the Tor browser) offers a highly anonymous and extremely difficult to police zone for committed extremists. It’s hard to see whether the regulations which politicians demand could effectively break that down.