The Christchurch terror attacks were a painful reminder to everyone that ideas matter. As a former member of the English Defence league (EDL) I welcome the news that the government plans to introduce internet safety laws. We should all welcome legislation that encourages social media companies to take stronger action to address the toxic spread of extremist ideas on their platforms.
However, because I am a former member of the EDL, I do not envy the choices government or social media companies will have to make.
On the one hand, neither can allow social media platforms to play any role in facilitating extremism. However, denying those with extremist views access to social media platforms, as Facebook has done today, will not tackle the underlying ideologies which fuel extremism, and doing so risks pushing the problem underground where it cannot be moderated or flagged at all.
The danger I see is that these “other” non-mainstream platforms will allow violent hateful views to go unchallenged, increasing people’s vulnerabilities and exposure to unmonitored extremist ideas.
There are already countless private Facebook groups where content is controlled by admins who vigorously remove any thought that counters or contradicts their world view.
These groups need to be tackled and removed as they fuel hatred and create the conditions for people to become radicalised. Hopefully, the new proposed rules will force social media companies to put an end to these groups.
However, we should be wary of the effect of removing people from public spaces, be it on social media platforms or mainstream media. Doing so limits people’s opportunities to challenge ideas and have difficult conversations.
For far too long we have been quick to judge and label any thought we disagree with rather than engaging in healthy debates in public spaces. Take me for example; when I was in the EDL I held difficult views about a particular community I wrongly believed was a problem. Specifically, I interpreted the actions of a few marginal but loud protesters who verbally abused our soldiers returning from Afghanistan, as representatives of an entire religion.
My views went unchallenged. When I tried to voice my opinions, people shut me down; they wouldn’t engage in any meaningful conversations and labelled me a bigot.
I made bad choices and will not excuse my behaviour, but the lack of meaningful engagement with me or my beliefs was a factor in me getting more involved in the EDL. I saw them as the only people who wanted to listen and the only ones who understood the problem. Once inside the group, I was quickly surrounded by other members both on and offline. Whether at rallies or on Facebook groups, I was only exposed to like-minded people, who not only shared my world views, but often held much more extreme beliefs.
It is in these closed groups that these ideas are allowed to breed and fester. With my own thinking left unchallenged, I spiralled into hate. I went further and further into the echo chamber of far-right extremism, whilst rising up the ranks of the EDL.
Radicalisation is a difficult process to understand and there were many other factors that had an effect on my own journey. Crucial to my own journey was the reinforcing effect of existing within an echo chamber of hate. I know this because the moment my beliefs were challenged, I was able to reappraise my views and constructively question what I was led to believe and my journey out of the EDL and the far right began.
This all happened after a chance encounter with an imam. Of all the people I could have met, it was an imam who actually took the time to sit down with me to discuss my issues. He didn’t lecture me, he didn’t tell me I was a bigot or accuse me of being a Nazi. He challenged me firmly and constructively.
Over weeks and then months of conversations and secret meetings in coffee shops, he was able to unpick my hatred by challenging and then showing me the reality of the false opinions I had adopted. In fairness to Manwar Ali, the imam in question, he had once held extremist views himself. It didn’t matter he had been an Islamist and I was in the far right, he knew how to engage with me in a productive manner. He gave me an outlet to ask the sorts of questions I had wanted to ask but no one would engage with.
More importantly, Manwar forced me to confront my bigotry. His presence and the fact he took the time to engage with me meant I was no longer surrounded by similar people. For the first time since joining the EDL he ensured I was hearing both sides of any story.
Therein lies the challenge that social media platforms like Facebook now face: by removing extremist forums, social media platforms may inadvertently drive vulnerable people underground and straight into the echo chambers we want them to avoid.
People need an outlet to ask questions and engage in debate, and social media platforms have the power – if used correctly – to provide that space, where education and safeguarding are key.
Ivan Humble works with Me & You Education on workshops that tackle extremism, visit: https://meandyoueducation.co.uk/#home
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