“NATION shall speak peace unto nation.” Eighty years ago, Britain’s state broadcasters adopted that motto to signal their hope that modern communications would establish new bonds of friendship between people divided by culture, political boundaries and distance.
For those who still cling to that ideal, the latest trends on the internet are depressing. Of course, as anyone would expect, governments use their official websites to boast about their achievements and to argue their corner—usually rather clunkily—in disputes about territory, symbols or historical rights and wrongs.
What is much more disturbing is the way in which skilled young surfers—the very people whom the internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies—are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions. Sometimes these cyber-zealots seem to be acting at their governments’ behest—but often they are working on their own, determined to outdo their political masters in propagating dislike of some unspeakable foe.
Consider the response in Russia to “The Soviet Story”, a Latvian documentary that compares communism with fascism. If this film had come out five years ago, the Kremlin would have issued an angry press release and encouraged some young hoodlums to make another assault on Latvia’s embassy. Some Slavophile politicians would have made wild threats.
These days, the reaction from hardline Russian nationalists is a bit more subtle. They are using blogs to raise funds for an alternative documentary to present the Soviet communist record in a good light. Well-wishers with little cash can help in other ways, for example by helping with translation into and from Baltic languages.
Meanwhile, America’s rednecks can find lots of material on the web with which to fuel and indulge their prejudices. For example, there are “suicide-bomber” games which pit the contestant against a generic bearded Muslim; such entertainment has drawn protests both in Israel—where people say it trivialises terrorism—and from Muslim groups who say it equates their faith with violence. Border Patrol, another charming online game, invites you to shoot illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border.
From the earliest days of the internet the new medium became a forum for nationalist spats that were sometimes relatively innocent by today’s standards. People sparred over whether Freddie Mercury, a rock singer, was Iranian, Parsi or Azeri; whether the Sea of Japan should be called the East Sea or the East Sea of Korea; and whether Israel could call hummus part of its cuisine. Sometimes such arguments moved to Wikipedia, a user-generated reference service, whose elaborate moderation rules put a limit to acrimony.
But e-arguments also led to hacking wars. Nobody is surprised to hear of Chinese assaults on American sites that promote the Tibetan cause; or of hacking contests between Serbs and Albanians, or Turks and Armenians. A darker development is the abuse of blogs, social networks, maps and video-sharing sites that make it easy to publish incendiary material and form hate groups. A study published in May by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human-rights group, found a 30% increase last year in the number of sites that foment hatred and violence; the total was around 8,000.
Social networks are particularly useful for self-organised nationalist communities that are decentralised and lack a clear structure. On Facebook alone one can join groups like “Belgium Doesn’t Exist”, “Abkhazia is not Georgia”, “Kosovo is Serbia” or “I Hate Pakistan”. Not all the news is bad; there are also groups for friendship between Greeks and Turks, or Israelis and Palestinians. But at the other extreme are niche networks, less well-known than Facebook, that unite the sort of extremists whose activities are restricted by many governments but hard to regulate when they go global. Podblanc, a sort of alternative YouTube for “white interests, white culture and white politics” offers plenty of material to keep a racist amused.
Tiny but deadly
The small size of these online communities does not mean they are unimportant. The power of a nationalist message can be amplified with blogs, online maps and text messaging; and as a campaign migrates from medium to medium, fresh layers of falsehood can be created. During the crisis that engulfed Kenya earlier this year, for example, it was often blog posts and mobile-phone messages that gave the signal for fresh attacks. Participants in recent anti-American marches in South Korea were mobilised by online petitions, forums and blogs, some of which promoted a crazy theory about Koreans having a genetic vulnerability to mad-cow disease.
In Russia, a nationalist blogger published names and contact details of students from the Caucasus attending Russia’s top universities, attaching a video-clip of dark-skinned teenagers beating up ethnic Russians. Russian nationalist blogs reposted the story—creating a nightmare for the students who were targeted.
Spreading hatred on the web has become far easier since the sharp drop in the cost of producing, storing and distributing digital content. High-quality propaganda used to require good cartoonists; now anyone can make and disseminate slick images. Whether it’s a Hungarian group organising an anti-Roma poster competition, a Russian anti-immigrant lobby publishing the location of minority neighbourhoods, or Slovak nationalists displaying a map of Europe without Hungary, the web makes it simple to spread fear and loathing.
The sheer ease of aggregation (assembling links to existing sources, videos and articles) is a boon. Take anti-cnn.com, a website built by a Chinese entrepreneur in his 20s, which aggregates cases of the Western media’s allegedly pro-Tibetan bias. As soon as it appealed for material, more than 1,000 people supplied examples. Quickly the site became a leading motor of Chinese cyber-nationalism, fuelling boycotts of brands and street protests.
And then there is history. A decade ago, a zealot seeking to prove some absurd proposition—such as the denial of the Nazi Holocaust, or the Ukrainian famine—might spend days of research in the library looking for obscure works of propaganda. Today, digital versions of these books, even those out of press for decades, are accessible in dedicated online libraries. In short, it has never been easier to propagate hatred and lies. People with better intentions might think harder about how they too can make use of the net.