Course taster

Extremism and the web

Censorship does not necessarily have a political dimension, and the varying degrees of censorship that are experienced in different countries may relate to cultural and religious diversity. They may also be intended to prevent various forms of human exploitation. However, in many cases, censorship is intended to suppress political dissent and support governments by preventing the free flow of information. In this context, it is important to recognise that political dissent can take on many forms and can be judged in many ways. All too often, actions that are deemed to be of an extremist nature by one government may be seen as legitimate protest in other societies.

In short, getting people to agree on the areas that should be subject to censorship and determining the level of censorship can be fraught with difficulty.

This is demonstrated by recent events in the UK in relation to the proposed censorship of extremist content. Undoubtedly, such material is used in an endeavour to promote the agendas of violent terrorist groups and as a key ingredient in radicalisation. Given recent events, it is natural to consider the wisdom of allowing extremist material to be readily available, and this suggests that censorship may well represent an appropriate measure. This led the UK government to propose the development of legislation aimed at countering extremism (which would include web-based content).

But how do we define extremism? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, extremism concerns:

The fact of someone having beliefs that most people think are unreasonable and unacceptable.

And the Oxford Dictionaries indicates that an extremist is:

A person who holds extreme political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action.

The UK government has come up with a suggested definition of extremist content:

Vocal or active opposition to fundamental [British] values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

Joint Committee on Human Rights (2016)

This introduces a further difficulty – from a legal perspective, what is meant by British values? Consideration of the ramifications of the Counter Extremism Bill has triggered extensive debate:

...with opponents arguing it would diminish the law's protection of fundamental rights including freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom to protest. Critics have said that it would discriminate against Muslim communities or could be used against groups that espouse conservative religious views...

Townsend (2017)

There are of course many episodes in history that demonstrate extremist action but that have been fundamental to the advancement of society. Should the UK Suffragettes be condemned for extremist action – given that they did at times practise illegal and violent action (recall the Oxford Dictionaries' definition cited above)? Martin Luther King Jr. was condemned as an extremist – but were his actions justifiable? In 1605, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators tried to destroy the British Parliament using 36 barrels of gunpowder (their actions being intended to address serious grievances about Catholic persecution). Should they be considered extremists? Should Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela be castigated for extremist action?

Unfortunately, as suggested by the survey results presented in the Table below, people have quite different perceptions of extreme behaviour.

Table: Summary results of an aspect of a ComRes poll carried out for the Evangelical Alliance in July 2017. There were 2,004 UK (adult) respondents. This table summarises responses to the question: 'Would you describe the following figures as extreme?

Person Yes No Don't know
Napoleon Bonaparte 51% 33% 16%
Jesus 28% 61% 11%
Martin Luther King Jr. 25% 67% 8%
Nelson Mandela 25% 68% 7%
Mahatma Gandhi 20% 70% 10%
Dalai Lama 13% 72% 15%

(ComRes 2017)

Given the difficulties experienced by the government in gaining consensus on the precise nature of extremism, it would seem that the Counter Extremism Bill has now floundered (Townsend 2017). Consequently, other ways must be devised to deal with extremist web content and other materials that, for example, exploit vulnerable members of society.

Activity 1

In the case that countries such as the UK continue to increase levels of censorship of web-based content, discuss how this censorship should be imposed. Specifically, should censorship be undertaken by government, or should it be placed in the hands of Internet service providers? Alternatively, should censorship legislation focus on end users by making it illegal to search for certain categories of material? In relation to this latter possibility, identify and discuss any broader ramifications.

Activity 2

Research and discuss the hardware and software systems used in the implementation of China's Great Firewall. As you will see, a number of the large Western computer companies have provided the technologies used in its original implementation and for its ongoing development. Identify and discuss the ethical issues associated with Western companies supporting (and capitalising on) the implementation of this major censorship endeavour.

Activity 3

In 2010, a man booked a flight from Doncaster Robin Hood Airport to Northern Ireland (he was travelling to meet his girlfriend). Unfortunately, because of bad weather, the airport was closed and flights were cancelled. In his frustration, the man jokingly posted a message on Twitter in which he said that he was "going to blow the airport sky high!".

Five days later, the airport duty manager performed a routine search for tweets that mentioned the airport...

Seven days after the man posted his ill-advised message, the police arrived at his place of work and he was arrested. Eventually, the case was brought before the High Court (and was successfully appealed).

1 - We are likely to agree that making the posting was an ill-advised and somewhat stupid action (but spontaneous humour can often be misinterpreted when clinically reviewed by others). Given that the person included his own name with the posting, discuss whether or not you believe that he should have been arrested and whether or not the matter should have ended up in a High Court hearing.

2 - To what extent do you believe that postings (or email contents), which may be taken out of context, should be self-censored? Bear in mind that automated censorship systems (which may be AI based) do not have the skills needed to discern the subtleties and/or complexities of human humour.

3 - Discuss whether or not you believe that the above account provides an example of the so-called 'slippery slope' of censorship.

Activity 4

Before completing this unit, please revisit the Activity on this page. Discuss whether or not your responses to the questions have changed significantly following your study of the content comprising this unit.