[Photo credit: MPR News]
Fueled by racist ideologies, white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. violently rams his car into a crowd protesting against white supremacy. Two men are thrown up into the air by the impact, and many more are resisting the perpetrator in the background.
We can find cultural diversity almost everywhere. There are different mediums through which culture can spread, such as the Internet. With just a few clicks, virtually anyone can upload and create content on their web pages, and anyone can interact with these digital means of communication, meaning the sky’s the limit for information exchange. Each and every day, there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data—25,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes with 18 zeros—created on the Internet.
Such a rapid spread of information spread not only constructive and educational information but also hateful and discriminatory messages. Free speech and anonymity is a key component on the Internet, but it is quite apparent that more than just a few people are willing to exploit this vulnerability; no responsibility. With just a few clicks, virtually anyone can upload and create violent and hateful content on their web pages, and anyone can interact with these digital means of communication, meaning the sky’s the limit for the epidemic-like spread of extremist ideologies. As more and more violence is generated across the web, we have become desensitized to its effect; we see on the news that there has been yet another fatal shooting, and we think about it for perhaps ten seconds. We then resume our daily lives as if nothing had happened. Becoming used to the ever-growing violence does not mean that they are any less, however.
To take a look at how serious some of these hate-inspired crimes can be, here is a brief but very much traumatic list of events:
Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (2012); 20 children aged 6 to 7 were shot dead, in addition to 6 adult staff members.
Charleston church shooting (2015); Nationalist and white supremacist Dylan Roof shoots 9 African Americans dead.
Orlando nightclub shooting (2016); A single gunman with ISIS connections enters an LGBT nightclub, killing 49 and injuring 58 people.
Charlottesville Car Attack (2017); A Neo-Nazist drives his car and plows through a crowd of protestors, killing one and wounding 19 others.
Atlanta spa shootings (2021); A total of 8 people were killed, 6 of whom were Asians.
The unfortunate reality is that there are many more tragic events like these. Currently, the news media has shifted its attention to COVID-19. That doesn’t change the fact that outside the newsroom, heinous acts of terrorism are still being committed.
The freedom to roam the vast pages of information with the anonymity that the Internet has been greatly praised for is also its Achilles heel. Just like a car that directly emits its exhaust without a catalytic converter can be deadly to those who breathe it, unregulated and unfiltered forms of freedom and the opinions it entails can be harmful to the general’s wellbeing public and everyday web surfers. Many are disturbed by illegal forums, but others who embrace extreme forms of ideas also embrace others like themselves on the Internet. Discussions turn into encouragement, and before you know it, there is a man with an AK-47 triumphantly walking into a Walmart.
What can be done to solve this issue? Many things, actually, but for now, let us take a look at an example of past attempts to bring online perpetrators to justice. In September 2014, the Evansville Police Department in Indiana traced the supposed location of the attacker to a suburban home. A group of SWAT officers was called in to arrest the person and search for evidence of the crime. Still, things took an ugly turn when it was later discovered that they had destroyed the front glass door without giving the tenants enough time to respond, thrown a flashbang grenade without checking the area, handcuffed a small young lady whose physique clearly showed that she was unable to resist even without the handcuffs—in the wrong house. Investigation shows that the perpetrator had taken advantage of the household’s unsecured Wi-Fi, tricking the local police department into thinking that it was the real location. Such a fatal premature conclusion could have ended much worse; what if somebody was near the door when they had carelessly lobbed the grenade?
Incidents like these happen even to those who were professionally trained to deal with these kinds of situations. Trying to track down these online mobsters on malicious web forums can be very difficult. A secure VPN connection can make it increasingly difficult to track down the location of the computer unless the VPN service provider turns in the information of its user. Even if this happens, this also takes precious time.
Let’s take a look at what some of these web forums look like. 4chan is an online imageboard founded by Christopher Poole in 2003. It is an entirely anonymous website, and users don’t even have to sign up to comment or post anything. No personal information, no pseudonyms, no nothing is required to access this completely anonymous imageboard. Perhaps this is the exact reason why people encourage readers to drill their iPhone 7 to find the nonexistent secret hidden headphone jack and create harassment campaigns praising Hitler. In short, this website is absolutely and completely NSFW. Seriously, what more did you expect from an utterly unmoderated website created by a 15-year-old insomniac?
Unfortunately, the majority of the hate-spreading extremists online are individuals who are not on a police watchlist or have done something that would have motivated the authorities to keep an eye on them. In other words, because they are non-famous, “normal” Internet users who aren’t criminals (free speech still exists…though its applicability changes as capriciously as the weather) like the majority of people, an attempt with a legitimate reason to monitor their connection may be legally challenging even for the authorities. And certainly not worth the budget and labor it would cost the department. After all, what can you possibly expect? No authority agency is going to tap into every 4chan user’s desktop wirelessly.
So, online forums like 4chan become a breeding ground for extremist ideologies without a force to keep them in check. Internet vigilantism is very much a thing, but it brings out the question of “is it worth it” because there are many gray areas on tracking information about strangers on the Internet, even if they are criminals. You’d also have some trouble explaining how you were so sure that the person is a criminal without making you sound like a stalker yourself, even if you could pull off such a professional level of cyber detective work. But nobody’s paying you, so why would you even think of Internet vigilantism in the first place?
Police departments are not about to spend billions of dollars on tracking down every single person on however many shady Internet forums there are.
Individuals are not about to risk their personal lives and legal status to accomplish something they won’t even benefit from.
This is why the age of Internet censorship is approaching but it is a necessary step to censor out the “unhealthy” parts of the World Wide Web that would cause damage in any form to ordinary and innocent people.
So far, there were only paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the problem. Now, it’s time for the solution. Here’s what you can do: go to change.org, and create your petition to advance selective censorship and active monitoring on specific parts of the web that promotes illegal activity. Or, if you can, find an already-existing similar petition and click the sign button. The latter method can save you a bit of time, as you would need to be quite descriptive in creating a petition connected to government and politics.
Rarely are solutions perfect, especially so when it comes to governmental matters. Even if the government does successfully block the harmful domains, it might as well start a game of whack-a-mole, where if one site gets taken down, another one pops up, leading to endless spending of budget on no particularly meaningful project. And the government may use this authority to censor harmful websites as leverage to limit free speech that may be used against them, which we already are all too familiar with. And many don’t like the idea of giving the government that much power. If the authorities have complete control over the Internet, then citizens would have truly no private space to take a break-in. Taking a run in the park? Surveillance cameras. Trying to take a brief moment of a break on YouTube watching cat videos in your workplace cubicle? Surveillance cameras. In a hospital bed because all this monitoring drove you psychologically ill? Surveillance cameras, capturing every single moment of your worrisome face. Virtual reality headset? Finally, one of the few places in real life and the Internet where only you know what you are seeing, and nobody else can bother you. Wait, is that Hitler doing a Nazi salute in VRChat?
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