Does the Blogosphere Breed Political Hate?
The more that emerges about Breivart's relatively affluent and quiet background in Norway, the more investigators search for the sources of his warped worldview, the more abundantly obvious it is that online conversations with British extremists were a key source of ideology and inspiration. This has led Nick Cohen to assert, in yesterday's Observer, that Britain is the Breeding Ground for Hate
Nothing about Breivik is as interesting as the people he shot, but those with the stomach to read him will find that ideas made in Britain enthralled him. He writes in English. He uses a British pseudonym – Andrew Berwick – and gives his manifesto a London dateline. He meets sympathisers in a London pub and drops strong hints that the organisation he is closest to is the English Defence League. He has a respect for at least some of the EDL's ideas because it does not go along with traditional antisemitic Nazism but agrees with Breivik that there has been a plot by the treacherous "cultural Marxists" of the European elite to undermine the nation state by flooding it with immigrants, most notably Muslim immigrants.
British extremists of whatever type have the advantage that English is the language of the web that foreigners must master if they want an international audience. Breivik's references to British sources would not be surprising if all he did was quote from obscure websites and chatrooms.
But Breivik did not only listen to British far rightists screaming out their hatreds in the madhouses of the blogosphere, but peppered his manifesto with citations of articles in the Daily Telegraph and other respectable conservative newspapers. Britain's mainstream media, not the fringe on the web, formed the basis of his claim that readers could find all the evidence they need of the multicultural plot to turn white, Christian Europe into a Muslim-dominated "Eurabia"
As usual, Cohen is right about the detail but jumps to a debatable conclusion. When it comes to displaying knee-jerk suspicions of Islam, it wasn't just Murdoch's The Sun who assumed the Oslo attacks were Jihadist in origin: even the liberal New York Times jumped the gun and wheeled out its bloviating Al Qaeda experts.
There's also no doubt the English speaking political blogosphere is full of cocoons of craziness and hatred. Outbursts of Islamophobia can be found anywhere. But so too can unfounded claims about Climate Change, the EU(SSR), Obama's birth certificate, or the CIA's involvement in the 9/11 attacks. It's not just on the xenophobic right where echo chambers of extremism flourish. As a regular blogger in the US, I encounter conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking regularly on the left too - on liberal blogs like Firedoglake or Dailykos.
The internet is still dominated by the English language, and so the growth of extremist rhetoric could be something to do with the nature of politics online. Because you preselect your sites and sources - narrowcasting rather than broadcasting - the net brings the attendant dangers of confirmation bias, and a ramped up atmosphere of increasing hyperbole and extremism of expression.
However, as my own experience reveals, blogging has forced me to engage with, and try to combat, generalised arguments about Muslims, Birthers, Climate Change, or the EU. Why didn't Breivik's online excursions lead him him to The Guardian or indeed Labourlist, where his ideas would have been challenged?
Short answer: they probably did. But he didn't listen. The internet didn’t create extremism. It might have amplified on some occasions. But there are other example of new media - from the Murdoch scandal to the Arab Spring - where online activism has served more liberal ends. The net is basically a neutral space to share opinions. And when it comes to the recent phenomenon of Islamophobia, those opinions predate Twitter or Comment is Free.
PART TWO of this four part essay tomorrow: A Brief History of Modern Islamophobia