The power of the hidden internetJames Dodd 5th May 2018
Can you name the website that receives the most hits in the UK after Google, YouTube and Facebook? Clue: it’s not the BBC, Amazon or Wikipedia. It is Reddit. On average, people also spend more time on Reddit than any other website in the top fifty.
The dangers of social media are a hot topic at the moment. Whilst the pros and perils of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are openly discussed, less commonly mentioned are the so-called ‘hidden’ forums like Reddit, Voat and 4Chan.
The hidden internet is creating safe space for people to express opinions they would not feel comfortable discussing in real life and risking real life relationships. They can help previously underrepresented voices speak out when public discussion is dominated by the media and political elite. Reddit is home to flourishing feminist and LGBTQ+ communities. These encourage people to self-educate on under-discussed issues and give people who feel uncomfortable in mainstream culture a place to be themselves. Online LGBTQ+ communities are helping to dispel the notion of a single, cohesive LGBTQ+ community through diverse subreddits from r/rightwingLGBT to r/rupaulsdragrace.
Social media has also helped organise protest movements across the world. Milck’s Quiet became the unofficial anthem of the 2017 Women’s March, with Milck organising guerrilla flash mob performances with other women online as the #icantkeepquiet choir.
So far, so good. But such communities are also echo chambers. This allows people to surround themselves with opinions and facts (“alternative” or otherwise) which resonate with their own, while avoiding views they disagree with. All this is helped along the way by site algorithms. r/The_Donald flew largely under the radar of the mainstream press, yet arguably played a key role in electing Trump to the presidency. Echo chambers can encourage the spiralling radicalisation of opinions, with very real-life consequences. Alek Minassian pledged allegiance to the “Incel Rebellion” before murdering 10 people in Toronto. His radical beliefs were nurtured on r/incel and incel.me, which provided a space for Minassian and others to openly worship Elliot Rogers and more generally allow terrorist incitement and recruitment.
This gives new complexity to public order and how anti-social behaviour should be dealt with. Whilst European law punishes hate speech, American law doesn’t draw the line until incitement to violence.
Once unacceptable behaviour has been defined, it is hard to implement regulation. Unsurprisingly, it’s far harder to ban people and communities from an online world than the real one. Indeed, when distasteful communities such as r/incel and r/fatpeoplehate have been banned from Reddit, they have sprung up elsewhere on the site or on others, such as on Voat. Until such communities break US law, Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman is unwilling to ban them: “my view is that their anger comes from feeling like they don’t have a voice, so it won’t solve anything if I take away their voice.” Conversely, Germany is already looking to revise laws it implemented in January around preventing hate speech on social media, following criticism that too much is being blocked.
If law is not far reaching enough and companies cannot be trusted, maybe independent bodies working on an international scale are the way to go. Much like the internet itself, such a body could provide a forum for open and honest discussions on how speech should and could be monitored or regulated online. Education of users at all ages into how to behave and their accountability is also required. Discussions over Germany’s new laws highlight that regulation is a learning process, and mistakes can be expected to be made. Through these discussions, it’s important not to lose sight of the positive impact virtual communities have for a diverse range of people.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.