Sarkozy’s Response to the Toulouse Shootings — hate’s challenge to cyber-utopianism

Post by Jennifer Evans

As I sit and write this post, my Twitter feed is updating every couple of minutes with news of the aftermath of the Toulouse gunman’s death. Trending worldwide since Mohammed Mehra’s horrifying actions a few days ago, resulting in the deaths of Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three members of the French armed forces, this tragic chain of events has quickly become a social media fixation. Alongside the journalists seeking to craft the media message, average citizens tweet their anger and frustration with these acts of targeted violence, some of them searching for answers in the blogosphere and among the youtube and flickr sites generated by those spewing hate on the far right. Speculation is rampant and the answers few. In the eye of the storm, the French government struggles to project an air of confidence that perpetrator networks will be uncovered and all those responsible — both near and far — will be brought to justice. Included in President Sarkozy’s statements in the immediate aftermath of the gunman’s death is a familiar refrain, one we heard in the days after the Oslo shooting as well: that all those caught frequenting social media sites casting hateful messaging will be a focus of investigation, if not themselves prosecuted (“Sarkozy to Act on Hate Websites” Irish Times, March 22, 2012).

How quickly online media, social networking sites, and virtual relationality becomes stigmatized. Just how shortsighted (to say nothing of unrealistic) is this stance? By now, we know that we need to protect our online selves from nefarious efforts (almost every other week) to attack our privacy. Still, the underlying belief in the net’s democratizing impulse seems to reign supreme, regardless of what Evgeny Morozov might say (See “Texting Ourselves to Utopia” in Boston Review). Recent events in Toulouse beg the question: while the web is a breeding ground for extremism (requiring government action), is banning far right sites and monitoring all those accessing them truly the answer? Is there not something to be said for the way even the most sordid of the web’s “episodic publics” (to use German sociologist Jürgen Habermas’s phrasing) creates conditions for opposition, discussion, consciousness building, and global citizenship?

In an article from 2006 (http://archivos.brunner.cl/jjbrunner/archives/1-Habermas_Deliberation2006.pdf), Habermas argues that deliberative democracy is possible in conditions where there is a “self-regulating media system and a responsive civil society.” In this vision — although he isn’t explicitly thinking of the heavily mediated social web — this is a public sphere where “input from citizens gives voice to society’s problems,” intervening in the form and shape of elite (and one might add fringe) discourse. Participation in that system is the key. Citizen intervention — even in the darkest places of the net — as consumers, observers, respondents, readers, maybe just as lurkers, is part of the circulation of ideas, the place where people develop mechanisms to refine and rethink the terms of debate. We certainly need to nuance the idea that all talk is good talk (and not just chatter). And in moments like this, perhaps we might be forgiven for reacting with emotion. But we also must remind ourselves that the web is made up of a multitude of people, many of whom are equally outraged and in search of answers. Hate sites are plentiful, a blight on our social communication networks. But accessing them, reading their content, and responding to them emotionally, in print, or otherwise, cannot be seen as inherently destabilizing to democratic or humanistic values. The answer to the problem of radical thought does not lie in quick fix solutions and sound bites. Although these too — circulating online now, on Twitter, and in the various news feeds — have now become part of the global conversation, motivating some to seek revenge and many more to commit themselves to shaping the debate and opposing hateful attitudes wherever they may surface, online, in newspaper comment pages, in the checkout, school yard, and home.

I-CUREUS, r u curious?

Post by Jennifer Evans

At the very beginning of the Winter 2012 semester, I learned that my application for an I-CUREUS undergraduate researcher was funded (http://www5.carleton.ca/students/enhance-your-degree/undergraduate-research/i-cureus/). The programme is designed to give undergraduates research experience during their BA to provide them with a new skill set and an introduction into academic problem solving. David — a third year History Honours student — was warmly recommended to me by a colleague. He seemed eager, curious, a bit wary, but ultimately excited about jumping into a project with both feet, especially one on something so un-history-like like social media and online hate. Our first meeting went swimmingly, and after a few administrative hiccups, he was well on his way to his first task: a review of the literature. Collect was is out there, assemble it according to theme and argument, and provide some synthesis and a working way forward. Only in this case, the terrain was vast and the surroundings unfamiliar. Unconventional is one word for it. I’m certain he thought of a few other descriptors as he wiled away the hours huddled in front of his computer, tapping his way through search engines, article databases, and boolean keyword strings. The end result was a cogent review of all he was able to find — with only a minimal direction and “guidance” (in scare quotes). This sense of alienation, frustration, and possibly even despair was exactly what all researchers face when exploring a subject for the first time.

And it was what I wanted him to feel too. My sink-or-swim method was precisely that — a way to make him unsettled, to de-familiarize a subject which at first hearing might appear self evident, especially to a generation weaned on Facebook, Twitter, and smart phones. Did he find all the relevant information? Of course not. But that wasn’t the purpose either. Rather, I wanted him to figure out for himself the nature of the conversations out there in the academisphere (my word, at least I think it is). What did he find? That while there is much emphasis on skinheads, hate literature, and far right groups, very little exists on how average people register and mobilize creative opposition online. Thinking he had failed in his task, he was oh-so-happy to find out that, in fact, no, this was precisely what I had wanted: for him to find the gaps in the literature and recognize the sheer enormity of the issue. How best to proceed? By defining our terms between far right and neo-Nazi, by recognizing there are important and vast differences between media platforms and the discourses they generate, and understanding that all research comes from a bit of organized chaos, a haphazard process of fits and starts. I-CUREUS for what develops. R U?