In 2005, Jack McConnell labelled sectarianism and religious bigotry, “Scotland’s secret shame”. In 2011, a number of recent incidents suggest that sectarianism still widely exists in Scotland and has become a more acute problem.
Since 2005 there has been a revolution in how we (as a society) use the Internet. More people are posting and sharing messages on social networks than are sending emails. Social media is the number one use of the Internet. Online society reflects wider society in many ways, including the expression of ‘hate’ and sectarianism.
In a recent interview (see video below), Alex Salmond strongly states his intention to eradicate sectarianism from Scottish football terraces and to begin a zero tolerance campaign targeting the ‘peddlers of hate’ on the Internet. For those in any doubt as to the political will behind this rhetoric, Salmond states unequivocally – “it will happen”.
Social Media Monitoring Tools make it easier than ever before to identify who is saying what, where on the Internet. Whilst these tools are more traditionally employed to monitor consumers of brand products they can be readily applied to the authors of religious hatred (helping to identify both the perpetrators and the platforms).
Whilst this media monitoring approach – focusing on the “peddlers of hate” – is laudable, it also asks a number of questions:
(a) How is online “hate” or sectarianism defined?
(b) Which messages are deemed unacceptable?
(c) Who will monitor these interactions?
(d) What are the implications from posting an unacceptable message?
(e) Is there a strategy or response policy governing actions taken?
(f) What constitutes success in terms of any monitoring initiative?
Further rumination raises another critical question. By focusing on a minority (the ‘peddlers of hate’) are we precluding the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the issue? Should we also be attempting to answer the following:
(a) How widespread is online hate and sectarianism?
(b) Is there a wider “culture” of acceptance that propagates the extremes (and what does it look like online)?
(c) what are the motivations and behaviours of individuals that (actively and passively) participate in communities where online hate is expressed?
(d) What role does the online community and the group dynamic play in the creation of ‘extremists’?
In order to gain this type of understanding we must look wider than simply monitoring messages, we must employ techniques like Netnography. Netnography is ethnography adapted to the study of online communities. Used effectively, netnography is a flexible and unobtrusive method through which to study and understand the language, symbols, meanings and motivations of particular online communities and cultures (Kovinets, 2002).
Most would agree that as a nation Scotland needs to act swiftly and effectively. However, if we set our objectives too narrow, there is a real danger that our results become the online equivalent of a few life bans meted out in a capacity crowd of football supporters. It is hoped that the Scottish Government look deeper at the issues surrounding online sectarianism and choose the best long-term approach to monitoring and understanding these issues in an online environment.
As usual, comments and feedback very welcome