The second must-read on The Bookshelf is “The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace” by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara. The internet may be a utopia for free expression, but it is also a haven for nihilistic groups and individuals spreading bizarre creeds unhindered by the risk-averse gatekeepers of the mass media – and not all are as harmless as the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua or Sexastrianism. With few barriers to entry, ready anonymity and no centralised control, the internet provides wired extremists with unprecedented access to a potential global audience of billions. Technology allows people to select the information they receive – so extremists can filter out moderating voices and ignore arguments that counter their ideas, retreating into a virtual world of their own design. In The Devil’s Long Tail, the authors argue that we misunderstand extremism if we think intervention is the best way to stop it. Policies designed to disrupt extremist networks fail because they ignore the factors that push people to extremes. Extremists are driven less by ideas than by the benefits of membership of a tightly-knit group. Rather, extreme ideas should be left to sink or swim in the marketplace of ideas that the Internet has created. The internet and the web are valuable creations of a free society. Censoring them impoverishes that society while leaving the radical urge intact.
David Stevens (PhD) is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.
Kieron O’Hara (PhD) is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton. In 2006 they co-authored Inequality.com: Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide.