There’s been an inevitable backlash against social media in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Mainstream news organisations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of blaming Twitter, Facebook and sections of the more obscure ‘dark web’ for the radicalisation of young men into the political orbit of white nationalists. However, I don’t think we should blame social media for the rise of Nazi shooters.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrrison is among those calling for a “crackdown” on social media supposedly to prevent further terror incidents. However, this is putting the cart before the horse and then flogging the cart even though the horse is, itself, almost dead.
And of course, The Australian is out there whipping away hysterically.
Yes, a strained metaphor, but I think an apt one.
Let me explain.
It’s easy to blame the machines
The idea that social media is somehow responsible for capturing the minds of susceptible people and turning them into homicidal racist monsters is easy to grasp and it’s comfortable; but it is wrong. It plays to a generalised anxiety about the potentially harmful effects of too much technology and it seems to offer an easy solution, but it really means more surveillance for all of us.
If the technology itself is a corrupting force, then why don’t we just ban it or at least impose some proper controls mandated by a responsible authority – the government, for example.
The simplicity of this idea is its major appeal, but there is a secondary appeal in this argument, one that is very useful for politicians, mainstream media and journalists seeking to deflect any blame that might attach to them.
I am not questioning the idea that social media channels and platforms can play a role in ‘radicalising’ some people, particularly teenagers. In fact, there are some forms of online radicalisation I’m in favour of. A good example is the recent global student strike around the lack of serious political action to stop climate change. The fact that hundreds of thousands of school and university students can see their peers take action and feel inspired about joining in is a good thing. However, the real political movement coheres on the street, or as we increasingly feel it necessary to emphasise, in the ‘real’ world as opposed to the ‘cyber’ world.
The climate striking students gain an initial sense of solidarity from being able to connect online via Facebook groups, WhatsApp and other chat forums, but they really only see the real power they have when they come together and march, rally, paint placards, chant and, in some cases, defy their parents and headmasters to cut school for the day.
It is instructive to note that when politicians wanted to attack the climate marches and berate the students into staying in class, it wasn’t social media that they chose to blame it was mysterious ‘adult’ activists pulling the strings and manipulating pliable and suggestible young minds.