28/01/2013 06:51 GMT | Updated 29/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Does Multiculturalism Work Online?

On multiculturalism, both the Labour and Conservative parties are edging towards a similar position: We welcome and want people to celebrate their own cultures, background, religions, but not at the cost of weakening a common British identity. We need to integrate, together.

What about the Internet? We spend a lot of time there of course (on average four hours a day), and it is where we get a lot of our information about other religions and people. It is increasingly where movements and identities are forged - and is a platform for very different groups to interact. But it is not always the ally of multiculturalism. Academics like Eli Pariser and Ethan Zuckerman argue that, rather than being an open, free exchange of information, the Internet is often balkanized, where small like-minded groups coalesce to corroborate their own worldview. Increasingly, we get our news from there too, and an awful lot of misinformation thrown in with it. Groups like the English Defence League protest they are not 'Islamophobic', because -phobia suggests an irrational fear of Islam. Their fears - Islam is destroying British culture, Muslims are either terrorists or groomers - are not irrational: it's all there on the Internet!

So what to do? The government wants more integration. Out there in the real world, encouraging different groups to mix seems to work. This is called 'contact theory', and evidence suggests that people living, working, and meeting together tends to help create mutual bonds of understanding and collective interest - especially when its based on a common goal, like improving the local school. But online, the opposite might be true. A recent analysis of Tweets about the murder of an American abortion doctor found that conversations within the pro-choice camp strengthened their views; but when they interacted with the anti-choice camp, this strengthened their views as well. Anyone who has seen English Defence League and anti-Fascist groups arguing online will know that the more they interact, the angrier they get. The answer is far from obvious, but an education system that teaches people responsible, skeptical and discerning Internet use might be a good place to start.