In its early days, the internet was often spoken of as a free marketplace of ideas, where everyone’s views and thoughts could be shared and compete on an equal footing. Today it’s an essential tool for accessing information and services, but its value as a vehicle of civic engagement and debate has in many ways declined.
The last few weeks have shed an unprecedented light on the use of digital media to spread and inspire hatred. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the perpetrator in the attacks on Canada’s National War Memorial and Parliament buildings, appears to have been motivated in part by exposure to online postings by a self-described member of the Islamic state, and the Federal government has already stated that it intends to create tools to remove online content that promotes the “proliferation of terrorism.”
Bigotry, in its various forms, has been with us for a long time – at least since the Greeks coined the word “barbarian” to mean “anyone who isn’t us,” and likely longer – so it’s not surprising that racism, sexism and other prejudices have found a home on the Internet. MediaSmarts’ new report Young Canadians in a Wired World: Encountering Racist and Sexist Content Online looks at how often Canadian youth are exposed to prejudice, how it makes them feel and how they respond to it.
The Boston Marathon tragedy has raised questions about the role the Internet plays in radicalizing youth and, more generally, how it may be used to perpetuate hatred. In Canada, similar questions are being asked about the radicalization of four London Ontario students in the wake of last January’s attack on an Algerian gas plant.
Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers.