Positivity Online: An Environment that Fights, Not Feeds, Extremism

Positivity Online: An Environment that Fights, Not Feeds, Extremism

Positivity Online: An Environment that Fights, Not Feeds, Extremism

Commentary

6 min read

Posted on: 12th November 2019

The development of technology has allowed the creation of a virtual global village, in which people all over the world exchange knowledge and ideas. It has allowed the emergence of bridges between cultures and communities and has given a voice to many who were previously denied the opportunity to be heard. Following centuries of limited access to education, which was mostly restricted to the wealthy and powerful, the internet broke these limitations. Now it provides free access to unlimited information, slowly narrowing the educational gaps created by social classes.

The internet is a powerful tool for good. Kind people from all over the world are sharing and supporting each other. Their collaboration has created the greatest encyclopedia of all times, globally developed and improved daily by thousands of volunteers. Social media allows people from all backgrounds to be able to interact with each other in real time and in new ways.

As with any development throughout human history, this positive technological advancement has brought with it new challenges. Online platforms have been exploited to distribute extreme ideologies and have involuntarily enhanced the proliferation of extreme views and radical discourse. This trend is bringing forward the critical debate regarding the limits of freedom of expression, the accountability of technology companies and the extent to which governments should be allowed to limit internet freedom.

Violence emerges when people feel that they have no other choice. It is important to acknowledge that the excessive limitation of people’s freedoms might be a contributing factor to the emergence of violence, rather than a mitigating one. Preventing violent extremism is best done in an environment of productive, robust and thoughtful public dialogue among people with a range of views. An open dialogue can reduce ignorance, dissolve prejudices and promote acceptance. The greatest challenge that we as a society face is the creation of an open public dialogue which would grant as much freedom of expression as possible, without being exploited to distribute and stir violence.

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy. It is one of the most fundamental human rights of modern societies. Any limitation applied on this freedom must be carefully calculated  and restricted to the absolute minimum required to maintain a healthy discourse. In many cases, over- restriction might lead to an accumulation of negative emotions over time, and the individual sense that the only way to express one’s feelings is through violence rather than words. This is not to claim that hate speech should be defended under freedom of expression, but that tolerance may, to some extent, have a mitigating effect on violent tendencies.

Extreme ideologies are difficult to fight against. People and their actions can be restricted, but abstract ideas cannot. The only way to fight them is through education from a young age and through the creation of a productive public dialogue, where radical ideas should  be proven harmful and ignorant. It is clear that as long as humankind exists, radical ideas and hatred will live  with it. Our role as a society is to not let them rule the discourse, but to frame them correctly as dangerous ideologies that should only gain minimal attention at the margins of the market of ideas.

When discussing the role of technology in the rise of violent extremism, it is important to acknowledge that internet platforms have not created hatred or radical ideologies, but only reflect the ones already in existence. To some extent, the internet has allowed isolated extremists from different parts of the world to exchange ideas online, bringing their dark ideologies out into the open and practically granting authorities better access in order to understand, track and prevent radical ideas from becoming actual violent acts.

As with any development throughout human history, this positive technological advancement has brought with it new challenges.

While the internet, particularly social media, has no responsibility for the creation of extremist ideologies, it does have an amplifying effect. Social media, by its viral nature, relies on the creation of sensational content that invokes a strong emotional response to encourage more users to engage with it. This de facto promotes the increasing use of provocative content–be it positive or negative–as it produces the highest rates of engagement.

This trend has given dominance to radical discourse on social media, often used by the most powerful public figures to gain popular attention, while contaminating public discourse with all forms of hate, including but not restricted to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and bigotry. The fight against violent extremism, often perceived as limited to terrorism as an isolated case of violence, must be considered as a part  of the greater fight against mainstream hate, commonly promoted by influential global leaders who consequently grant public legitimacy to all kinds of hateful ideologies.

Technology companies should be held accountable for creating terms of use and easy tools to report   and enforce the restriction of hate speech and online bullying. However, they must not be driven to overly

restrict the expression of unpopular views which ought to fall within the protection of freedom of expression. Public discussion should be held to determine the limits of freedom of expression, which in our opinion should be extended to the greatest length possible, while still keeping society safe. This should also recognise that silencing radical ideas would not eliminate them. Indeed, they might find an alternative, harmful expression through violent acts.

Beyond the creation of efficient and easy reporting tools, further positive steps could and should be taken by technology companies to promote and elevate quality discourse over ‘clickbait’ and outrage. Positive content which promotes thoughtful dialogue should be promoted over negative provocative statements. Unreliable information should be clearly marked as false, to prevent the circulation of fake news which is often used as a tool to stoke hate.

Preventing violent extremism is best done in an environment of productive, robust and thoughtful public dialogue among people with a range of views. An open dialogue can reduce ignorance, dissolve prejudices and promote acceptance. Social media platforms should find practical ways to create a positive environment to encourage productive public discourse, one in which radical ideas are marginalised by the domination of peaceful, tolerant and thoughtful beliefs.

While the intervention of technology companies should be cautiously applied, governments must be twice as careful in applying restrictions on online speech. It is a slippery slope from restricting content that is deemed to be of an extremist nature to limiting content which may be politically critical towards the authorities. There is an extensive debate on whether applying government regulation on the internet is either desired or effective. Where freedom of expression online is concerned, other issues of privacy rights and violations of civil liberties arise. Governments often view the prevention of violent extremism through the narrow lens of restricting people from expressing views unauthorised by the government. Technology companies should push back.

Positive content which promotes thoughtful dialogue should be promoted over negative provocative statements. Unreliable information should be clearly marked as false, to prevent the circulation of fake news which is often used as a tool to stoke hate.

In many authoritarian regimes, the restriction of freedom of expression is used as a tool to control the public and influence the narrative to serve its power. These undemocratic practices must not be replicated by democratic governments through overly regulating the kind of expressions allowed online. Clearly, content that stirs violence or promotes terrorism must be restricted by legal means.

However, this regulating power should be used cautiously, only to the minimum extent needed in order to protect national security and public safety.

Technology has brought wonderful things to humanity. It has connected us in different ways as a global community, and clearly portrays the best and the worst in human nature. We as a society, hand in hand with the tech industry, should design and promote the most positive online environment for public discourse to flourish in the most constructive, thoughtful and productive way, marginalising extremist ideologies to slowly dissolve into the outskirts of legitimacy.

Protection Is Not Enough: We Must Prevent Extremism

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