Sheikh Google is out there, but he's not working alone

The UK parliament’s reasonably sensible report on radicalisation was released this morning, focusing on the perceived terror threats to Britain and Northern Ireland; far-right racist individuals and groups, Islamist terrorists and “dissident” republicans.

A quick glance at, for example, the Republican Sinn Féin website is enough to tell the reader that your average dissident is not the most web savvy person. “Radicalisation” in Northern Ireland is not taking place on the web, but in the same small, tightly bound communities where extremism has festered in Ireland since, well, a very long time.

What of the other two groups? The report points out that white power radicals tend to pop up in isolation — think of Anders Breivik in Norway, busy writing his manifesto in suburban Oslo before unleashing his horror. At the time, many on the liberal left took a perverse glee in finding Breivik’s “manifesto” quoted, among others, Jeremy Clarkson and Melanie Philips, as if they somehow carried responsibility for the slaughter. I argued against this, pointing out that while his thinking may have been influenced by them, they could not be held responsible for one man going on a shooting spree. The mainstream writers Breivik quoted did not incite violence. The attack was something Breivik did off his own bat.

While I don’t think Breivik fits into our 20th-century idea of “far right”, many of those on the radical right in the UK seem to be following a similar pattern — paranoid obsessives acting alone, convinced of the coming race war, but fuelled by reading and discussion on the web.

Radicalisation of young Muslim youth tends to take a different slant. When Roshanara Choudhry stabbed her MP Stephen Timms, much of the coverage suggested that the east London woman had been radicalised on the web, particularly by the sermons of the (now dead) preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. At the time I suggested that it was disingenuous to suggest Choudhry would never have encountered these ideas until she stumbled across “Sheikh Google” as the report calls online Islamist extremism, and I still believe that to be true.

The issue is agency. While we should be thankful that the parliamentary committee does not recommend additional censorship powers (indeed, it advocates more free speech in the form of helping civil society groups make counterarguments against extremist rhetoric), the effectiveness of any form of online censorship must continue to be questioned. it is ultimately unpredictable what language will have what effect on whom. Context mean a lot more than content.