21 July 2015
Hidden in the darkest and deepest corners of the web are secrets beyond what most of us would believe possible. Jamie Bartlett’s book, The Dark Net, dives into these secrets, and gives us a guided tour - the fora that many of us never frequent, the places where you can place a bounty upon someone’s head, or order illegal substances and have them delivered to your door.
But Bartlett’s attitude to many of these online spaces and the resulting behaviour, is largely uncritical, perhaps in his attempt to be a neutral and objective guide to the space. Take this statement about a Reddit community whose aim was to “troll” other community users, “generating laugh at someone else’s expense”, as he puts it.
Game of Trolls was eventually banned by Reddit; a highly unusual step for the otherwise liberal site, but testament to the pervasiveness and persistence of the Reddit trolls.
This is the same site that some describe as a “violent black hole of racism”, that has actual sections describing sexual abuse in great detail, whose community policies are sorely, sorely lacking, whose former CEO described as a space where the trolls are winning over humanity. By not mentioning this side of the “otherwise liberal site”, the reader is left none the wiser about the actual realities of community fora such as Reddit.
Bartlett goes on to conclude about online trolling and harassment:
Whether we like it or not, trolling is a feature of the online world today. As we all live more of our lives online, trolls might help us to recognise some of the dangers of doing so, make us a little more careful, and a little more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.
Here, he seems to be asking us to accept the dangers of spending time online - the online world is cast as an inherently dangerous space, rather than one that is made to be so, by communities of abusive and cruel internet users. The onus is put on the regular user to somehow avoid harm by being “more careful”, and the fact that those most often targeted by trolls are most likely to be women, completely ignored.
His quip that perhaps one day we will “thank” the trolls for making the internet a dangerous place is entirely inappropriate - especially, but not only, given that it is following a true anecdote about a woman who had naked photos of herself sent to her family, friends and colleagues. Is he seriously suggesting that the solution to such criminal acts would be asking the victim to be more “thick-skinned”?
Bartlett misses opportunities to bring a more nuanced sociocultural perspective to the online spaces he discusses - Wikipedia is mentioned as a place where terrorist Anders Breivik found a place to “nudge public opinion by carefully editing pages”, but there is no mention of the Wikipedia community demographic being 90% male, nor the other discriminatory issues that have arisen from such an elitist community running the online platform.
Somewhat crucially to the earlier discussions about trolling, he then reveals that he considers violence is to be something purely of the offline world:
Although only a tiny proportion [of racist nationalists] will ever commit a violent act, it's almost impossible to tell who that might be.
The survivors of relentless online abuse mentioned earlier in the book, may well disagree, as would millions of women worldwide. Violence happening virtually does not make it any less real than offline, and separating the two in this way unnecessarily delegitimises the very real harm that is done through behaviours that are described in this book, and more. Separating the online and the offline into ‘very different realms’ as the trolls mentioned in the book do, is a privilege that the abused do not have.
Bartlett’s main conclusion that “the dark net fosters breathtaking creativity” is one that only one of the most privileged users of the internet would come to. The outcome from his explorations of the dark net that
"Outsiders, radicals and pariahs are often the first to find and use technology in shrewd ways, and the rest of us have much to learn from them"
puts those who use the dark net for abuse and for harm in the same category as those who have legitimately used the space creatively. The lack of caveats or nuance in lauding the activities of those mentioned in the book seems to celebrate the use of the dark net for abusive and harmful behaviour, rather than separating between those who are engaging in criminal activities online, from those who are using the space in an appropriate way.
While the book touches upon many fascinating and far-reaching corners of the virtual space, his lack of nuance and understanding of the real and legitimate harms that can come from the behaviours he describes, leaves me craving another, more critical perspective of the dark net in order to really understand the topic.
He has the privilege to narrate, uncritically, the activities he observes online, but for the majority of other internet users, the internet is a very different online space. The Internet does not need to be a dangerous space, but for now, very real dangers do happen online. Recognition and active acknowledgement of that is, in my opinion, sorely missing here.