“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet based services provide.”
That was a quote from the speech Theresa May gave following the horrific London bridge attack at the start of the month. Promoting the idea not only that the internet plays a large role in the radicalising of individuals, but also that exercising governmental regulation over it could put a stop to it. Two questions then immediately need to be addressed. Firstly, are extremists typically radicalised online? Secondly, could government regulation actually prevent this, if it is present?
To answer the former we must take a look at the role of the internet in radicalisation, and to whether it acts as a source of it, or as a facilitator and catalyst for those already radicalised. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation published a paper entitled “Research Perspectives on Online Radicalisation: A Literature Review 2006-2016”, which provides us with valuable insight. The consensus of the study is that the internet alone cannot radicalise individuals, and agrees with the latter, that it merely fuels the blind motives behind said individual’s violent actions. One thing that is exceptionally noteworthy in this study is the empirical evidence present, or rather, lack thereof. Which suggests that present and past research into the subject at hand has been, a lot of the time, speculative at best.
However, the solid evidence remaining points toward the use of social media based echo chambers by extremists to isolate individuals and instil their message. Which, of course, suggests that these online activities are not the source of such radicalisation, but a means to keep an individual sealed off from society whilst they are continually fed their hateful rhetoric. One thing that is undoubtedly clear though, is that the level of effect the internet has upon those radicalised, is virtually immeasurable. At least by what has been discovered thus far, as what is observable is very little apart from tactics used by extremist groups, most notably, Islamic extremists.
From this, we can now dive into the second question. Since we have already determined that, by in large, radicalisation does not begin online, efforts to regulate the internet to prevent such movements from accessing individuals would be detrimental to the populace without tackling the primary source of the problem. One can easily theorise since the internet is primarily used by these groups as way of simply amplifying their message that, even if regulation were successful in disrupting these activities, the process of creating a radical would still take place but over a longer period of time. In short, no. Implementing a vast array of censorship would not effectively tackle the problem it aims to. All of this is based upon said approach actually working of course. In reality, there is very little evidence to support the idea that it would, as very few studies done provide an accurate explanation of how this would occur, short of creating a fully fledged online police state.
All of this is extremely damaging to the conservative party. It fuels the idea that they are only willing to offer a half-measure to the increasingly large problem of Islamic terrorism in Britain. This may have been a significant factor in the large shift toward labour in the final weeks of the General Election, especially from the digital generation of 18-24 year old youngsters. Who could easily have been swayed at the prospect of a government regulated internet.
It is clear that the source of the problem lies in physical, real space community, and not online. As such, this is where the problem must be addressed if we are to prevent further radicalisation on our streets.