This is all written in the style of first-person immersive reportage, but the reported material is often too thin to support the weight of the form. When reading Going Dark, I thought often of Jon Ronson’s 2001 book Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson succeeded in illuminating the human strangeness and bizarre beliefs of his subjects precisely by presenting himself as the journalist Jon Ronson (as opposed to Ebner’s approach of using various false identities). This approach allowed him a degree of control over the journalistic encounter, an ability to interview his subjects and have real and revealing exchanges with them. Ebner, on the other hand, undergoes a lot of initiations – via Skype chats, via discussion groups – without ever really leveraging those beginnings into any sort of deeper engagement.
She exposes how the internet has brought together fringe communities, fuelled extremists and fanned their global influence. Going Dark shows how diverse groups feed off each other, using similar tactics to create social bubbles while exploiting the weakness — or reluctance — of social media firms to control their hate-filled content. It underlines the dangers of ignoring the threat of far-right terror, the normalisation of violence-inciting ideologies and the fearsome power of technology to inspire copycat attacks.
Ebner isn’t quite despairing about all this. At the end, she offers 10 solutions that straddle big tech, politics and civil society to address extremism, including the creation of internet “elves” to combat the trolls. What she never fully sets out is how big these movements are: are they niche elements, or sprouting up next door? Yet this book still feels like a punch to the stomach: these pernicious creeds are lurking in the darkest recesses of the internet, waiting to come out into the light
Another option, for my money, would be for Ebner to go back undercover, this time with a comedy writer in tow. Nurtured in the internet’s self-righteous echo chambers, hatred has little defence against laughter. And judging from some of the folks that Ebner has met, there is limitless scope for satire.