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.