‘Massive social experiment’ leading to cyber hate says expert

16 September 2022

The internet has changed how we relate and communicate in unimaginable ways, says University of Canterbury (UC) Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw in a new web series about cyber hate and freedom of speech in Aotearoa launched this week.

  • Mike Grimshaw

    There are no moderating influences when people start to go down online ‘rabbit holes’ that can lead to radicalisation and extremism, says Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw, one of the experts consulted for a new web series about online hate and extremism by Community of Strangers.

Sustainable Development Goals 10 - Reduced Inequalities

“We are living in the middle of a massive social experiment we haven’t really thought through; if it was a ‘real experiment’ or ‘research project’ it never would have received Human Ethics approval,” Associate Professor Grimshaw says.

A lecturer in the sociology of religion, diversity and identity, Associate Professor Grimshaw recently edited a special collection for Springer Nature Social Sciences on Digital Hate and (Anti-)Social Media. He was approached by Community of Strangers to join the project, which explores the corrosive impact of cyber hate.

Associate Professor Grimshaw joins five other experts, including UC media law Professor Ursula Cheer, to explore cyber hate, radicalisation, extremism and freedom of speech.

Online extremism is committed by a very small proportion of New Zealanders however it has the potential to cause great harm, especially when online hate moves into actual action against others. What most concerns Associate Professor Grimshaw is “that we have no way to moderate what occurs online and we respond after the matter as a type of ambulance at the bottom of the cliff scenario. We are not good at thinking through what is causing this on-line shift to seek communities of disaffected meaning, and identity, that enact violence in word and deed against others.”

In his video interview for the web series, Associate Professor Grimshaw talks about the rise of the ‘radical loser’, which refers to predominately young men whose sense of alienation makes them vulnerable to online radicalisation. 

“What is both fascinating and worrying,” he says, “is why so many young men feel they live without a meaningful nomos, or stable structure and guide of social and political behaviour. And yet the humanities in particular provides very rich and meaningful questions, philosophical and religious, and expressions of the arts, cultures and traditions, to think and live within.”

For some people, diversity is frightening. Associate Professor Grimshaw explains that “diversity can threaten your identity if your identity is not open to others, but inward looking to those who are like you. That is why the Community of Strangers project is such an important and challenging starting point - it rightly assumes and proceeds from the fact that we begin as strangers to each other and need to be open to the strangeness and seek to discuss and understand what we might then find in common.”

Community of Strangers is a partnership project between Lady Khadija Trust, NZ and Telling Lives. The project ‘Community of Strangers’ seeks to explore the underpinnings of both bias and belonging within our species by providing an understanding of our evolutionary pre-disposition to favour those most similar to us. Phase one of ‘Community of Strangers’ explores the corrosive impact of cyber hate and its destabilising impact on freedom of expression and trust in New Zealand and is funded by InternetNZ. 

Watch Associate Professor Grimshaw’s video here

Associate Professor Grimshaw’s recent piece for The Conversation explores: If rugby is still a religion in New Zealand, how should its high priesthood respond to a crisis of faith? (theconversation.com)

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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