The murder of British parliamentarian Sir David Amess has sent shock waves through the nation and its houses of government.
Alongside calls for greater security of political figures, some MPs have called upon the government to rein in social media. They demand a new “David’s law” to crack down on social media abuse of public figures and end the online anonymity that fosters it.
Meanwhile, intelligence services express growing concern about “bedroom radicals”, people who engage with hateful digital propaganda then transform passive alignment into violent action.
The dark underbelly of the internet is the Dark Web, so-called because it is largely hidden from everyday view. Getting to it, however, is very simple. You need only a particular browser and, possibly, a crypto-wallet, with digital cash to facilitate anonymous transactions.
The Dark Web is used by state players, to access compromising material on political opponents at home and competitors or enemies abroad. Industrial spies use it to gather copyright-protected material. Terrorist groups use it to teach their followers the art of home bomb-making.
Almost anything can be purchased here, from hardcore and violent porn - including so-called snuff movies, video recordings of real murders - to counterfeit passports, drugs and human slaves.
Outside of the Dark Web, mainstream platforms such as WhatsApp offer encrypted message transcription. This and similar platforms are helpful to people who use them constructively, but they’re also popular among terror cells and criminal syndicates.
We need to go further than “David’s law”. As governments plan for the Cop 26 environmental conference, we also urgently need global discussions on cleaning up the digital environment.
In the process, we must also look at limiting the unregulated power of BigTech.
It’s not all down to governments, though. Negative streams of content, which make the online experience such a depressing and destructive one, do not - at least for the moment - appear without human agency. We can all play a positive role in making the digital environment a less threatening one.
Our use of social media is a great place to start.
Since their birth in the late 2000s, social media have produced great benefits. Among them is mass collaboration. Walls between individual and corporate innovators have become more porous. We’ve become more aware that global problems require convergent solutions and digital technology inspires ideas exchanges.
But there are downsides, too. If handled unwisely these platforms morph into antisocial media. How can we, as individuals, help to create a more constructive, instructive and healthy digital environment?
There are some practical steps we can take. Number one is engaging our brains before our thumbs; recognising that we don’t have to have an opinion on everything. If I have a view on an issue, it will be more persuasive if I’ve thought it through before launching it like a rocket into the ether.
My ideas might also be more attractive if I present them in a calm, measured way, avoiding what I’ve called the “hot response culture”. This is true even if - or, especially if - I am passionate about them. Very few arguments are won through attempts at coercion.
Cleaning up the digital space will require that we abandon social disinhibition. Psychologists have found that many people lose their normal social inhibitions online. They say things online that they’d never say to another individual face-to-face.
We need to reinvent and apply an old rule: tweet unto others as you’d have them tweet unto you. Even strong disagreement can be handled with respect.
Our online discourse will improve if we avoid hashtivism. That word means different things to different people, but I define it as mistaking social media comments for real-world action. Adding a hashtag to a message about an issue isn’t the same as actually doing something about the problem. We can’t become activists on every issue we care about, but we can at least be mindful of the fact that talk is cheaper than action - and opinions are less weighty than experience.
We will improve the tone of the cybersphere if we avoid narcissism. In the digital world, we access products & services in an instant, with a click or a swipe. What can’t be downloaded in a few seconds can often be ordered for overnight delivery. Engaging in those activities often enough can foster a self-obsessed mindset, where everything revolves around me and my needs. Any obstacle to those selfish needs must be removed at all costs.
A US study involving thousands of US college students found that levels of narcissistic behaviour among students rose markedly in the early 2000s. A major contributing factor was the rise of digital communications and social media.
It’s important, too, to remember that dissent is not disloyalty - someone can sincerely disagree with me online without wishing to malign or hurt me.
If we’re serious about creating a healthier digital environment, we’ll learn to avoid intellectual fascism. Some people want to deny others a right that they insist on for themselves - the right of freedom of speech. They behave as if their opinions are the only ones worth sharing.
We will also do well to be wary of the so-called “wisdom of crowds”. The fact is - and history bears this out - crowds often get it wrong. Mass innovation is a great benefit of the digital experience. Mass indoctrination, though, serves only to enslave thinking.
A final thought. During the pandemic, our collective digital experience has been despoiled by a plethora of conspiracy theories, which have sprung up as people search for a simple narrative to explain a complex event.
In this season, too many people have succumbed to the allure of confirmation bias and information loops. Online content distribution is largely driven by algorithms and bots. Algorithms are lists of rules built into computer programmes, to help them solve problems. Bots are internet applications that run automated, simple and repetitive tasks.
Together, algorithms and bots steer our web searches, often helping us reach materials we need more quickly. They track our web activity over time, which enables them to suggest material they “think” might be of interest to us.
The downside is that we can unwittingly spend our time in a cyber-bubble, exposed only to ideas that align with our existing assumptions. As a result, our thinking is not challenged through exposure to fresh or divergent insights. We can so easily come to believe that a higher percentage of the wider population agree with us than actually do, which strengthens our belief in our own rectitude.
History has certainly seen its fair share of conspiracies in which sinister elites - political, ideological or economic - plot to shape society in their image. However, searching for conspiracies should not be our default response to challenging situations - not if we value our mental health or collective, social well-being.
Conspiracy theories whip up fake news, which in a health crisis can be dangerous, but they also waste time that could have been spent finding proactive solutions.
In his parliamentary remarks about Sir David Amess, the Prime Minister said he was “firm in his beliefs but never anything less than respectful for those who thought differently.” This should certainly serve as a lesson for us all, especially in our online behaviour.
When it comes to engaging with one another in the digital space we all get it wrong sometimes, just as we do in our treatment of the physical environment. Cleaning up our physical space will require an all-out effort from each one of us. The same is true with the digital and we can make a start on both today.