Going Dark, The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner
Going Dark, The Secret Social Lives of Extremists has been one of my stand-out books for 2020 so far. Julia Ebner’s thoughtful, evidential, and clear narrative keeps the book moving with a strong pace. She carefully walks the reader through each step of the journey, highlighting similarities between all types of extremists groups. In just one book Ebner covers everything from Trad Wives to the alt-right to ISIS. She maintains a level of balance and humanity which helps keep the reader engaged, and reinforces how this is taking place all over the world.
A quick summary of Ebner reads like this …
“Julia Ebner is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where she leads projects on online extremism, disinformation and hate speech. She has given evidence to numerous governments and parliamentary working groups, and has acted as a consultant for the UN, NATO and the World Bank”
And the blurb reads …
“In Going Dark, Ebner takes the reader on a deeply compulsive journey into the darkest recesses of extremist thinking, exposing how closely we are surrounded by their fanatical ideology every day, the changing nature and practice of these groups – and what is being done to counter them”
There is no doubt that Ebner is an expert of the subject. This shines through in Going Dark providing a sense of authority to the reader. At the beginning of the book Ebner states: “[d]uring my working hours I was the cat, but in my spare time I joined the mice”. For me, this added a secondary level of authority. Going Dark is written from a place of first-hand experience, backed up by strong academic and research credentials. With a topic as sensitive as extremism it feels appropriate.
Going Dark is a stand-out book for me in 2020 not only because of Ebner’s credentials, writing style, and humanity, but also because it felt incredibly timely. Published in February, it appeared in my ‘Most Anticipated Non-Fiction Releases’ list for that month. Extremism, the rise of the alt-right, the continued growth of ISIS, ‘home-grown’ terrorism and, the Trad Wives have been frequent features in our news cycles for months. I believe it is important for society to understand why this is happening, and how this is happening. Going Dark starts that discussion with the authority and composure that it needs.
The structure in Ebner’s work is key to the reader’s understanding. By taking us through the whole journey from recruitment, socialisation, communication, networking, mobilisation, all the way through to attack, Ebner succinctly highlights their practice in the modern world. She says “[t]he rise of online echo chambers has heavily influenced the ways in which extremist movements can indoctrinate newcomers, foster their dependence on the group and strengthen their identification with its values”.
Modern society is one of the reasons this topic feels so pressing right now. Ebner states “[a]lmost everything is gamified today, and that includes terrorism”. The rise of big tech and social media plays a crucial role in the expansion of extremist thought and movements: “[t]hey use tech to give individuals what tech has taken from them: belonging, self-confidence and identity. Or illusions of that”. With growing pressure on Silicon Valley to be gate-keepers, is this something that we will get a hold on, or will be forever playing catch-up?
One of the most gripping chapters for me in Going Dark was ‘Trad Wives: Joining the Female Anti-Feminists’. This was for a number of reasons: firstly, I am a feminist. Secondly, Ebner displayed her humanity here and wasn’t afraid to tell the reader that some of the rhetoric played into her insecurities – something I think most women can relate to. Finally, only a few weeks before I read Going Dark there had been a small media-frenzy about Trad Wives appearing on Good Morning Britain … making their way into the mainstream.
For me personally, I know when a book has really challenged me to think deeply when I come away with an even longer TBR list. There are many books that I could read following on from Ebner’s discussion, but the ones at the immediate top of my list are:
- David Neiwert, Alt-America
- Chris Sampson and Malcolm Nance, Hacking ISIS
- Julia Ebner, The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism
This is a book that all people in positions of power should read; those with control over foreign and domestic policy need a better understanding of the motivators, methods, and means that lead to extremist behaviour.
‘Going Dark’ in Facts:
Author: Julia Ebner
First Published: 2020
Publishing House: Bloomsbury
Pages: 348 (bulk read 281)