The Editor’s Desk: The heart of darkness

The online world is a place of wonders, but also the home of dark things

Some thoughts on last week’s horrific tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand, which saw 50 people killed in terrorist attacks on two mosques in that city, but first a few words about something that might seem completely unrelated.

I’ve noted before that I fell in love with the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was 13, and immediately began reading all I could find about the great detective and his world. This was back starting in 1976, when finding the information meant haunting the local library and hoping it had the books I wanted. I was grateful for whatever I could find, but I still had no one with whom I could share my love for all these characters and stories.

It wasn’t until 1987, when I helped found a Holmes society in Vancouver, that I was able to enjoy the company of fellow Sherlockians. Even then, however, I was cut off from all but the very largest of the other Holmes societies, the ones that produced regular journals. I knew what the Bootmakers of Toronto and the Baker Street Irregulars of New York were doing, but had no clue what Sherlockians in other locations were up to, and few ways of communicating with them.

These days, of course, I can be in immediate touch, and exchange information, with Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts around the world in a matter of seconds. I also have the entire World Wide Web at my fingertips, meaning information that would have been impossible for me to find four decades ago (if it had even existed, and how would I have known?) is now quite literally at my fingertips.

To say that 13-year-old me would love to have had these resources would be a massive understatement. But the wonderful scenario I describe, whereby a bookish 13-year-old can immediately be in touch with others all over the world who share her innocent enthusiasm for Holmes and Watson and that world where it is always 1895, has a dark mirror image.

Which brings us back to the tragedy in Christchurch, where the alleged killer is a self-avowed white supremacist who was apparently in touch with fellow hatemongers and fringe right-wing groups via the same technology that allows me to discuss the merits of various film versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles with fellow Sherlockians. And not only was he able to use the web to seek affirmation of his sick worldview; he also used it to live-stream his shooting spree and leave links to a 74-page manifesto espousing hatred, so that others of his ilk could read it.

It’s not necessarily just like-minded souls who paid attention. In the first 24 hours after the Christchurch attack, Facebook blocked 1.2 million attempts to upload the video to the site, and another 300,000 clips were removed by moderators. Several media outlets linked to it; the Mail Online linked to the entire 74-page manifesto.

An editorial in The Guardian newspaper hits it on the head: “The birth, growth and resilience of the far right, which once festered in dark nooks and crannies, has been assisted by the in-group echo chambers of social media. It now festers in plain sight.” In 1976, someone who espoused these sick views would have found it difficult to find more than perhaps a handful of others who shared them. These days I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Ku Klux Klan has an online chatroom, discussion forums, links for further reading, and a Facebook page. Thanks to technology, finding affirmation and support of the sickest worldview is just the click of a mouse away, giving entry to a world where it is always dark.

What’s the answer? Shut down the World Wide Web? No. But we all need to be vigilant, and stop the spread of hatred when we see it, whether it be a killer’s video or a “fake news” story. We have something that can be marvelous. Let’s all help keep it out of the hands of darkness.

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