The Devil’s Long Tail

Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace

February 2015 9781849043434 288pp


The internet may be a utopia for free expression, but it also harbours nihilistic groups and individuals spreading bizarre creeds, unhindered by the risk-averse gatekeepers of the mass media – and not all are as harmless as the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua or Sexastrianism.

With few entry barriers, ready anonymity and no centralised control, the internet offers wired extremists unprecedented access to a potential global audience of billions. Technology allows us to select the information we wish to receive – so those of a fanatical bent can filter out moderating voices and ignore countervailing arguments, retreating into a virtual world of their own design that reaffirms their views.

In The Devil’s Long Tail, Stevens and O’Hara argue that we misunderstand online extremism if we think intervention is the best way to counter it. Policies designed to disrupt radical networks fail because they ignore the factors that push people to the margins. Extremists are driven less by ideas than by the benefits of participating in a tightly-knit, self-defined, group. Rather, extreme ideas should be left to sink or swim in the internet’s marketplace of ideas.

The internet and the web are valuable creations of a free society. Censoring them impoverishes us all while leaving the radical impulse intact.


‘In this well-reasoned book, the authors argue that censorship won’t quash extremism – only free speech will.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘An engaging and original exploration of the analytically complex — and politically fraught — relationships between technology, religion and the politics of security. … Stevens and O’Hara make a compelling, accessible and well-structured case for why violent extremism — at least those forms in which religion plays a constitutive role — is best countered by leaving it to adapt or survive in the global “marketplace” of religious ideas. Their book brings maturity and insight to a field in which political expediency has often trumped coherent and reasoned discussion and hampered or even degraded societal security itself.’ — Tim Stevens, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

‘Stevens and O’Hara adopt a refreshingly original and multidisciplinary market-based approach to analysing the complex intersection between religion, extremism, and the internet to challenge the received wisdom on advisable policy responses. Referencing everyone from Adam Smith to Jurgen Habermas, and Sherry Turkle to Joseph Conrad, Nicholas Negroponte, and Eli Pariser, The Devil’s Long Tail is essential reading.’ — Maura Conway, Senior Lecturer in International Security, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

‘Stevens and O’Hara explore the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” – religious beliefs as e-commerce product. They interrogate the relationship between religious radicalism and violent extremism, and question whether the internet plays a role in driving the two together. Setting out to bridge the gap between the intuitive and the evidenced, their contribution to the heated discourse around terror is both thought-provoking and timely.’ — Neville Bolt, King’s College London, author of The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries 


David Stevens is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

Kieron O’Hara is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton.

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