The Anti-Social Network

On the question of multiculturalism and integration – despite some superficial differences – I think both the Labour and Conservative parties have a reasonably similar position. We welcome and want people to celebrate their own cultures, background, religions, but not at the cost of weakening a common British identity. We need to integrate, together. With the forthcoming extremism bill, the Tories might be pushing slightly harder on the importance of creating some kind of shared values, but the broad contours are largely agreed on.  And both parties, rightly, talk a lot about where a lack of integration is occurring now – notably that schools and housing are the key areas to make sure people rub along together.

Personally, I think a lot of the difficulties with different groups integrating comes down to money – with house prices doing a fine job of separating different groups of people based on ethnicity and religion, and school catchment policy hemming that in further. In my view, well-meaning, hopeful policies about ‘creating shared values’ and ‘common purpose’ sort of melt away when people are faced with brutal economic choices (or lack of them).

Still, an integrated society where people share spaces, meet, intermingle, and develop meaningful relationships that span class or race or religion is something we should strive for. Ignore detractors who call it neo-assimilation or neo-colonialism or whatever else: when certain groups get stuck into segregated worlds where they never meet or interact with people from outside their own self-defined community (a dreadful word) it can have bad consequences for all concerned. And forget whether this may or may not result in ‘radicalisation’ – the evidence on this is non-conclusive – it’s really about creating a fair, open, welcoming society.

But for some peculiar reason, one enormously significant space is never discussed when it comes to integration: the internet. But it’s somewhere we all spend an awful amount of time.  The UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has found that British adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on media devices, which I’m pretty sure is more time that we spend asleep. From shopping to socialising, to watching television, to booking holidays, to communicating with friends, to accessing news, the internet has transformed many aspects of our lives – it’s increasingly where movements and identities are forged – and is a platform for very different groups to interact.

But it is not always the ally of multiculturalism. Academics like Eli Pariser and Ethan Zuckerman argue that, rather than being an open, free exchange of information, the Internet is often balkanized, where small like-minded groups coalesce to corroborate their own worldview. Increasingly, we get our news from there too, and an awful lot of misinformation thrown in with it. Groups like Britain First protest they are not ‘Islamophobic’, because -phobia suggests an irrational fear of Islam. Their fears – Islam is destroying British culture, Muslims are either terrorists or groomers – are not irrational: it’s all there on the Internet. The English Defence League wouldn’t have existed without the internet – and it was where they shared information, motivated each other, found new people, and organised events. And the same is true of some of misconceptions and conspiracy theories much loved by radical Islamists – typically fed by propaganda and lies spread online.  Creating our own realities is nothing new, but now it’s easier than ever to become trapped in echo chambers of our own making.

Research is starting to offer a few hints as to what is going on. Most obviously, the internet is changing where and how people get their political information, and interestingly, it varies by ethnicity. People belonging to an ethnic minority are more likely to get news from the internet and less likely to get news from newspapers than white British adults. Around 14 per cent of white British adults now principally receive their news from the internet – compared to 32 per cent of British Pakistani. But it’s only a small glimpse – and tells us nothing about the possibility that different groups construct and life in digital worlds that seal them off entirely from different groups and people.

So what to do? The government wants more integration. Out there in the real world, encouraging different groups to mix seems to work. This is called ‘contact theory’, and evidence suggests that people living, working, and meeting together tends to help create mutual bonds of understanding and collective interest – especially when it’s based on a common goal, like improving the local school. But online, the opposite might be true. An analysis of Tweets about the murder of an American abortion doctor found that conversations within the pro-choice camp strengthened their views; but when they interacted with the anti-choice camp, this strengthened their views as well. Anyone who has seen English Defence League and anti-Fascist groups arguing online will know that the more they interact, the angrier they get.

So I’m not entirely sure what we do here, and much less how we do it. But I’m quite sure that any integration work that doesn’t think about how it might play out online is lacking. A world in which we integrate offline and barely ever meet online is hardly an integrated society at all.