We are all different people online. Every individual, however authentic they may believe they are, adopts a filter when deciding what to post on social media, which platforms to use and what to say. Although our online personas are closely linked to our real life selves, there is invariably some alteration.
Julia Ebner has understood the importance of this in her latest book ‘Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’. Following a multitude of mad, bad and dangerous groups over years, Ebner discovers how they operate, their tactics of recruitment and what their true aims are. By day, Ebner works as a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which campaigns against extremist ideologies. But, as she herself admitted, this can only ever reveal half of the picture.
Over twelve chapters, Ebner uncovers the variety and horror of different groups she has come across. These go far beyond the cliche of trolls spreading memes online. Indeed, this group isn't so innocent after all. Although on one hand, more and more individuals having access to the internet is a brilliant step forward for humankind, Ebner also demonstrates how this can also be a danger in democratic processes, social cohesion and the very definition of truth.
The book does demonstrate the power of technology. Indeed, it reveals how technology as a whole is morally neutral. Whatever the intentions of its creators, such as the late Steve Jobs, it can always be used for good or ill. The online chat room Discord can simultaneously be a place for innocent fun and a location for white supremacists to engage in their own echo chamber.
Indeed, the best revelation in ‘Going Dark’ was the internal contradictions within each extremist group. Their values are prehistoric, yet they use highly sophisticated technologies. The groups stress the importance of the nation state yet operate on an international basis. They aim to fight culture wars yet desire peace within their nation. They stress the importance of free speech yet delegitimise their opponents and ban internal dissent within the group.
This is what makes such groups so dangerous to tackle from the outside. That they are able to shape shift and evolve, depending on what the circumstances require, means a counter-extremism think tank can only go so far. Only by infiltrating groups - putting oneself in danger - has Ebner been able to gain a full account of how these organisations operate and what has driven their success. Ominously, Ebner had demonstrated that, while these discussions can start online, they end up far beyond the chat rooms.
Their effectiveness stems from a willingness to provide a community and sense of belonging to isolated individuals. Although any individual seeking to join is vetted for their identity and beliefs, it appears chat rooms provide a solace for those who are left behind by society. Within the chats, that division is only worsened by spreading lies and forcing users to become further involved. For example, Ebner joins a Jihadi Brides group, where devotion to the cause, even if it means losing one’s life, is absolute. Despite prioritising their identity, any sense of individuality is lost at the door.
Ebner recognises that investigating these groups without action can only go so far. From her experience at the counter-extremism organisation, she knew to report any threats of violence to the relevant authorities. When a conspiracy to plan an attack took place, Ebner couldn’t leave it unreported. However, Ebner was more often than not able to meet these individuals in person. One chapter recalls the bizarre experience of attending a Neo-Nazi music festival. Music festivals are usually so innocent and carefree; only within the book do they appear also as sinister and dangerous.
The danger doesn’t stop there; Ebner is confronted by Tommy Robinson and his organisation at her offices. Accused of incorrectly portraying him as a white supremacist, he arrives with his camera team. It is all about clicks, views and reactions. Everything is about generating a response from his fans, causing more confusion, uncertainty and resentment. In that, Robinson is able to succeed. Groups that Ebner may have joined with her alias only stay online for so long. Even when they are online, this can definitely impact democracy. While multiple factors played a role in the 2016 EU referendum, it is undeniable that online content played a large part.
Like with most dangerous organisations, everything is presented as a conspiracy that has to be dealt with. The QAnon conspiracy theory, which runs rife in American politics and is beginning to infiltrate the UK, allows individuals to believe they are being lied to about everything. Any evidence against, for example, the Pizzagate conspiracy, is presented simply as further proof that the conspiracy exists. What is defined as the truth has vanished into the abyss. Within any chat room, the truth of the extremists is allowed to run riot, unchallenged with no dissent.
Julia Ebner tries to present a vision for optimism. After twelve chapters of conveying the danger of individuals across the world, most of whom the public don’t know about, Ebner tries to suggest that all is not lost. Even though such groups are growing online and in politics, there are reasons to suggest their ideologies can be combated. In a sense, this is where the book is at its weakest. Ebner gives ten suggestions which include ‘Trolling the Trolls’ and ‘Hacking the Hackers’. Shouldn’t we be better than this? It was Michelle Obama who said when they go low, we go high. Those examples would suggest the very opposite.
The definition of extremism will always be affected by the Overton Window - what is seen as socially acceptable discourse within politics. Extreme ideas hundreds of years ago, like the notions that women’s rights, civil rights and LGBT+ rights should exist, are thankfully well considered mainstream today. Countering extremist ideology online is best done through education. False claims deserve to be challenged. Conspiracy theories with no evidence in reality must be combated. At its forefront, Ebner’s book brilliantly demonstrates the importance of truth and objectivity. That both of those are in decline is worrying for our politics, social discourse and the rights of every individual.