A Reuters news story that’s simultaneously fascinating and pathetic discusses the phenomenon of hate groups turning to social networks to spread their extremist messages. The Simon Wiesenthal Center reports that the same sites where we send birthday wishes and take daily quizzes to determine “Which lump of coal do you most resemble?” (I got Bituminous!) are increasingly being exploited to spread propaganda and recruit members. The Center cites a 25% increase in ‘problematic’ internet social networking groups.
This makes perfectly logical sense. The only cost of setting up such a group is time: one racist who posts on YouTube even brags about how he’s on his sixty-fourth site; everytime administrators take him down, he creates a new persona and sets up shop a few bits of code down the block. This is a fascinating phenomenon Clay Shirky analyses at length in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. With such low cost of entry and such a wide net of users to recruit from, social networks provide the ideal vehicle to assemble coalitions out of far flung fringe types.
Comedian Jake Johannsen used to do a bit on gun control where he’d cop the rhetoric of advocates, saying “Guns don’t kill people…” After a long, wide-eyed pause, he’d add “It’s those little tiny bullets… The guns just make them go really, really, fast.”
Racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance remain deeply-seated issues within humanity. So while it’s true that social networks provide them with a new forum to organize and spread, the appropriate response is not to curtail freedom online so much as to redouble our efforts to expose intolerant idiocy offline.
And maybe invite extremists to lighten up by taking a “Which character on Gilligan’s Island are you?” quiz on Facebook.