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Inside the dark side: How internet inspires real life violence

How the Internet encourages violence to leave fantasies and enter chat rooms, and then real life

Extremists on a mission are not new. Conspiracy theorists are not new. Panic-mongers and reality deniers are not new.

What is new is that they all find each other online now, schmooze and network, and make life miserable for many more people than before. Earlier, you would expect to find an Earth-is-flat nutcase moping in his study, living off his parents, with no friends to speak of. Today the same guy is connected to hundreds of fellow nuts who all want to remap Earth into a giant loony bin.

For her new book, Going Dark, London journalist Julia Ebner went undercover for two years, at considerable personal risk, and signed up with several ultra-fringe online groups. What she discovered about the sophisticated and widespread web of disinformation, neuroses and hate speech such groups spread globally is chilling to say the least.

What we are dismissing fairly lightly as ‘WhatsApp University’ forwards are not quite so innocuous — they are, as is becoming obvious, the by-product of a galloping global pathology. It is the job of people like Ebner, who works at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, to dig out these networks. Her findings are shared with governments, parliament bodies, and UN groups who are racing against time to unmask neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Christian fundamentalists, jihadists, radical misogynists (remember incels?) — in fact, a whole nest of creepy-crawlies who have been inadvertently but so powerfully armed by the World Wide Web.

Just as Walter Benjamin, the Marxist German-Jewish philosopher, showed that fascism was propelled by the new ‘instruments of mechanical reproduction’, the rise of neo-fascism has been accelerated by cutting-edge communication technology. Ebner calls these tools “artificially intelligent, emotionally manipulative and socially powerful” — look around you to see how true this is.

India entered this millennium with huge numbers of unemployed, disaffected youth. Then it provided them with extremely cheap smartphones and data connectivity, thus creating the exact population of young, angry, tech-savvy people who could be snapped up by socially-corrosive counter-cultures that instantly appealed to their sense of inferiority and insecurity and fed their need for an “enemy” to blame. Today, we have several such “enemies” — Pakistan, Leftists, Muslims, Urban Naxals, Anti-nationals, Seculars, Protesters, Journalists…

All that the ruling regime’s IT minions have to do is feed this hungry mass an enemy a day to maul and snarl at, while the government escapes unscathed despite its spectacular failures. So far, so clever. But it doesn’t stop here. It gets lethally worse when the online posturing and aggression spills over into real life — as it did in Delhi two weeks ago. And as Ebner saw it unfold inside chat rooms when the alt-right began planning the deadly new-Nazi Charlottesville rally of 2017.

Internet hubs have become cheer groups for inchoate private grudges and enmities. They legitimise every hate, phobia and psychosis into a fanciful credo, which then plays out as real violence. For this, misinformation is a vital tool. One group that Ebner infiltrated creates fabulous Dan Brownish tales using spies, Hollywood, aliens and more, to discredit everything from climate change and vaccinations to scientific facts and research data. Using this, white supremacists, for instance, build up fears of an ‘existential threat’ — that they are being slowly replaced by racial or religious minorities and that elites, intellectuals and media are complicit in this. Sounds familiar here in India? That’s the fake news you receive on your phone.

To understand organised hate, see how the livestreaming of Brenton Tarrant’s Christchurch shootings echoes and presages the Delhi attack videos, many of which were shot by the perpetrators themselves; or how the Jamia shooter Rambhakt Gopal went live on Facebook about “ending the protest” minutes before he fired. These are not random miscreants; they are on a mission. And that is the danger.

We are sitting on a powder keg. Hate speech, open incitements to violence, dog-whistles — all that was ostensibly outlawed is back. From private fantasies to chat rooms to politicians’ speeches and on to the streets. It is no longer democratic politics, it is organised dystopian politics.

The only way out is to push the tide back. Talk, show, deconstruct. Challenge disinformation and debunk fake news. Show people how vulnerable they are, how easily they are being gamed and used by fanatics.

Can it be done? This wonderful young man shows how. Vandit Jain says on Twitter: “My family believes the Delhi riots was a ploy of the opposition and it caused major damage to only Hindus. Tomorrow I am going to book their tickets to come to Delhi and take them to riots affected areas. Revolution begins at home. Wish me luck!”

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:41:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/how-the-internet-encourages-violence-to-leave-fantasies-and-enter-chat-rooms/article31059218.ece

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