Elon University

The 2004 Surveys: Prediction on the rise of extreme communities

Responses in reaction to the following statement were assembled from a select group of 1,286 Internet stakeholders in the fall 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Predictions Survey. The survey allowed respondents to select from the choices “agree,” “disagree” or “I challenge” the predictive statement. Some respondents chose to expand on their answer, writing an explanation of their position; many did not. Some respondents chose to identify themselves with each answer; many did not. We share some – not all – of the responses here. Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are listed below are attributed here only for the purpose of indicating a level of internet expertise; the statements reflect personal viewpoints and do not represent their companies’ or government agencies’ policies or positions. Some answers have been edited in order to share more respondents’ replies. Below is a selection of the many carefully considered responses to the following statement.

Zealots in politics, in religion, and in groups advocating violence will solidify, and their numbers will increase by 2014 as tight personal networks flourish online.

Compiled reactions from the 1,286 respondents:
  48% of internet experts agreed
  22% disagreed
  11% challenged the prediction
  19% did not respond

This depends on world politics. Certainly they will try to grow and organize online as they are doing now – it will set up the battle between civil liberties and national security and who which will win out is not clear at this time. If surveillance becomes better, this element may be rolled up more efficiently or eschew these networks for caves and smoke signals instead. – Jonathan Peizer, CTO, Open Society Institute

Although I think guilds will form, I’m not convinced that bad-guy guilds will be any more prevalent than good-guy guilds. People are generally nice to each other. Sure, like-minded people will find each other, but I don’t think that’s reason to adopt the negative language of this prediction. Yes, more groups will form. But this is a very diverse world, and there will be all kinds of groups. – Susan Crawford, policy analyst/fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology and a fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project

Communities can come together on specific issues and then disperse – more often than the case of large communities arising and staying together on fringe issues. Could there be more of this than today? Perhaps. But they will most likely stay small, isolated and capable of only the type of occasional impact that we see have seen in the past. – Benjamin M. Compaine, editor of “The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?”

Tight personal networks will flourish, but governments will get to grips with how to monitor and control domestic groups. Thus, they will publish their rot, but before they can press the go button on any dangerous activity, they will find themselves penetrated and cleaned up. International groups will be more difficult, but even here, increasing cooperation between nations will do much to control them. See the eEurope commitments on security. – Steve Coppins, South East England Development Agency/Siemens

[I agree] only to some degree. In the case of any extreme group, IT can help with communication and coordination but it does not completely replace in-person activities of a positive or negative kind. Yes, they will be able to organize better; no, they will not necessarily flourish as a result – that will depend on other factors. – Ezra Miller, Ibex Consulting

The Internet is a boon for all kinds of groups that operate on the fringe of our society. Such groups were underrepresented in broadcast media and if anything, overrepresented in digital media. They are quick to adopt technologies that allow public outreach – which may result in some mainstreaming of their ideas in both senses of the term (the ideas will be more accepted by the mainstream and the ideas will become more mainstream in order to be accepted). It also allows underground groups to maintain contact as they move across the globe. – Harry Jenkins, MIT

The Internet has seen a proliferation of self-reinforcing cyberghettoes of all types. – Philip Virgo, secretary general, EURIM – UK-based Parliament Industry Group/Also works with IMIS – UK-based professional body for management of information systems

The exact opposite will happen. The web will be used by rational advocacy groups to expose the zealots for what they are. I am just hoping that people are by and large rational – Michael Wollowski, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

I disagree on “tight personal networks.” These will be propaganda networks between people associated by fear, resentment, frustrations, but not personal relations. – Louis Pouzin, Eurolinc France, internet pioneer: inventor of “Datagram” networking and designer of the Cyclades network; a formulator of the groundwork for contemporary networks

I suspect that fears have been exaggerated about people paying attention only to their own extreme communities. In fact, the Internet is leaky enough that people get a variety of opinions through email and chat with their friends (and remember, the Internet sustains more friendships) or the variety of results that search engines provide. Some of my best friends are even Republicans. – Barry Wellman, University of Toronto

Nutcases that would normally be isolated all over the world can now meet in real-time on the Internet. This will become much more extreme in the nest decade. The likely outcomes are not good. – Robert Lessman, owner of the consulting firm Quality GxP Inc.

Yes – but [this will work] not only groups of zealots advocating violence [but] also [for] groups of “zealots” advocating peace and non-violent activism. – Noshir Contractor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I believe that personal networks will allow some “undesirable” groups to enhance communications among themselves and perhaps to even broaden their recruitment efforts. However, I also believe that enhanced communications and access to information is on the evolutionary path to freedom. – Robert Lunn, FocalPoint Analytics/USC Digital Future Project

So far we have little empirical evidence to show that online communication has such adverse effects. (That is, it would be hard to show that the Internet has had an isolated influence on biggoted actions among people who wouldn’t have otherwise gone down that path anyway.) The jury is still out on how much the Net fragments people into little communities of people who completely agree with them. – Eszter Hargittai, Northwestern University

I guardedly disagree here. I think we will see more active and effective online groups, but the form these online groups take depends heavily on other social factors. – A. Halavais, State University of New York at Buffalo

The Internet will help weaken these groups. – Bob Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners

I agree – however, as I said previously, I think law enforcement will have increased liberties online. As a result, it will become increasingly dangerous to express one’s political and (extremist or non-Christian) views online. – Lois C. Ambash, Metaforix Inc.

Personal networks have flourished offline spectacularly so this can only become easier as global digital participation increases. But more moderate groups will also flourish. – Bornali Halder, World Development Movement

Yes, but it will be balanced by increased organization by moderating influences, so they will cancel out. – Paul M.A. Baker, Georgia Centers for Advanced Telecommunications Technology

Individuals that would not otherwise interact will be able to more easily find and interact with compatriots. This will result in an increase in the unpredictability of small, organized actions, from violence by governments, individuals, religions, political and other groups. – Dan Ness, MetaFacts

Groups of every kind will solidify and unite. The above statement applies to stamp collectors, bee keepers, left-handed, one-eyed, hermaphrodite Albanian midgets. – Rebecca Lieb, Jupitermedia

People will turn to the internet and be lead like sheep on how and what to think. – Tom Egelhoff, smalltownmarketing.com

I can’t see how this would be possible … the internet is the ultimate free speech printing press. – Graham Lovelace, Lovelacemedia Ltd., UK

If current trends continue, then fragmentation of the public sphere is one of the biggest challenges that a democratic polity must face. – Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo

The ‘Net should have the opposite affect on ”most people.” Sure, crazy folk will find crazy folk. But the masses will use the ‘Net for their first news and will go to trusted sites for affirmation and/or information that they seek. The level of political discourse should rise in proportion to the penetration of the ‘Net and the availability of trusted sources. – B. Keith Fulton, Verizon Communications

Thomas Jefferson said, ”From time to time, the tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of tyrants and patriots.” As our nation moves steadily away from the ideals on which it was founded, some radicals may indeed move toward violent resolution of their concerns. It stands to reason that the Internet will play a role in this. However, identifying serious religious or political adherents as ”zealots” is unfair demogoguery. Perhaps the question ought not group religious and political zealots only with violent groups, but also those who advocate peace or more sustainable agriculture. – Daniel Weiss, Focus on the Family

By 2014 people will acquire, through interactive technologies, the ability to filter most information they are exposed to, not just that which arrives through Internet means. I’m not sure this on its own will change anything. There is little difference in the societal outcome in filtering by choice and being restricted from exposure certain types of information by mass media ownership concentration. It returns to the notion that there are two types of information consumers – those who actively seek it, and those who are passively subjected to it. Consensus building has more to do with promoting societal principles of participation and the ideas that diversity of opinion, critical thinking, and open discussion are essential things to a healthy Democracy. Those who learn that filtering is the best way to get along will filter more effectively through interactive choice. Those who learn that health, both mental and societal, comes from open discourse and respect for a diversity of opinion, will use the Internet as they do now, as a tool to seek information that in some instances can also be used enable dialogue. – Sam Punnett, FAD Research

I do think the number of ”communities of interest” will increase, and they will become more tightly knit and integrated. More of these groups will be positively focused, but there will be negative elements as well. There will be good outcomes from this – it will be easier to learn about and understand issues from different points of view which will enable people to make informed decisions about political and social issues. – Lyle Kantrovich, usability design expert, Cargill/blogger

I disagree. This ignores another countervailing aspect, which is the ease of access to information and opinion. It will be harder to isolate and brainwash initiates, which is always the tactic of such groups. – Mike Weisman, Reclaim the Media

The political centre will get stronger, but so will extreme groups. The centre’s ability to sustain itself will depend on it’s ability to respond to the outliers. – William Stewart, LivingInternet.com

The power of the network to bring people together for both good and bad is possible. However, I believe good will always prevail. – Tiffany Shlain, founder, The Webby Awards

And the following are from predictors who chose to remain anonymous: [Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are listed below include Microsoft, Internet2, RAND, IBM, Gartner, Indiana University, AT&T, Information Week, Carnegie Mellon University, Intel, Civic Interactive Networks, Fidelity Investments, Slippery Rock University, Yankelovich Partners, Harvard University, U.S. Census Bureau, New York Law School Media Center and others.]

This is already happening. – Answer given by a number of anonymous survey participants

This may or may not happen, based on whether there is ample reason for significant discontent. The internet is a medium not a motivator. It is possible however that the relative anonymity of the internet will allow people to voice notions that would not be tolerated in polite “arms reach” society, thus more vitriol could be expressed without fear of social opprobrium normally expected when meeting with others face to face. In this sense the internet is like graffiti, only it can be targeted to the right niche.

The decline of broadcast and the rise of narrowcasting via websites and blogs will support the flourishing of extremist groups.

This has already happened in many cases. I suspect since this poses a patent threat to society (especially the violence) that countermeans will develop to mitigate the tendency.

Electronic communities allow smaller, more fringe groups to form and sustain themselves.

I believe that more security measures will be in place that will be able to monitor these types of networks and restrict/prevent use for violent means.

These will be balanced by better communication and trust across other types of groups.

It’s simply hard to know … the strength of these groups is likely independent of technology and will depend more on the political climate, etc.

Agree with the prediction, but not with the online nature. I think these will continue to be driven by geographic or cultural affinities, with online tools possible enhancing already strong social ties, but not as an essential driver.

These groups depend on secrecy. The Internet will tend to expose these groups rather than hide them.

Groups such as these will recognize that the internet only increases their visibility. While they will continue to use the internet for “publicity” purposes, most of their activities are likely to remain off the internet – and out of sight.

This is a very dangerous phenomenon: groups of people reinforcing each other’s beliefs, and narrowing the range of information to which they’re exposed.

The number of fringe groups may increase, but their membership will be small and their impact will be limited. Indeed, the behaviour of “insurgents” now in Iraq seems to indicate this.

I’m not sure that the numbers of these groups will actually increase. But then we don’t need a lot of such groups to be worried. A few really bad ones will do, and that will probably happen.

Generally, interest groups are well-served by the internet, and tiny communities can become small communities more easily. They will be (are) global.

They will solidify and increase, but so will governments’ ability to track and extinguish them. This will be an ongoing ebb and flow.

Like civic groups, these organizations are too small to have the drive and funding to develop comprehensive newtork infrastructures.

Smart zealots will avoid the Net…it will lead the authorities right to them.

It is possible that Internet-based extremist groups will be more visible than their non-Web versions, and hence, generate counter movements.

Information and technology should become a healer not a destructive force. History has a way of repeating itself rather than being significantly being modified by technology.

Groups of zealots appear to be on the rise in all areas. Whether this leads to violence, I don’t know. But it is a perhaps one of the sharpest dividing times in my lifetime. It is like we are in a civil war, with brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. There is no common good in the USA or the world at the moment. Technology and on-lineness are minor facilitators in this process. Tight personal networks on-line are unlikely but on-line as a filter of information, with only trusted sources is very likely. ”Trusted” networks might be a better way to talk about on-line groups. I ”trust” them for the truth about America’s involvement in Iraq (whether the trusted source is Fox News, the Mormon Church or al-Jazeera doesn’t really matter as long as it is your trusted group).

These are two different questions: Will fundamentalism expand? Does the Internet lead to tight personal networks? As to the second, no, I do not believe that to be true. The Internet leads to diversity and viewpoint exchange. It leads to access to unheard voices. It leads to dialogue. But the first question is: Will alienation expand? I fear it will. Capitalism now runs unchecked by communism. The gap between the rich and the poor expands. The rich in the U.S. make more than other countries. Violence and fear are making imbeciles out of people, and the lofty goals of the U.S. democratic experiment have all but been forgotten ? Karl Marx may yet be right – that Capitalism will collapse in revolution of some type and be transformed into something else. Simply because the USSR failed does not mean that Marx was not right that Capitalism has within it the seed of its own destruction.

The Internet, having broken boundaries of geography and linear time, enables niche groups to reach a ”critical mass” much more quickly and conveniently than in previous generations. But of course the zealots are not limited to religion and politics; they also include the quilters and the “Star Wars” fans and the peaceniks. The Internet itself is agnostic, and so should be your question.

Well, they’re there now, but I don’t foresee a marked increase of online presence – at least for groups advocating violence and illegal activity – because I don’t think the security will be there: the digital world is very sticky, and their actions will leave traces.