Things I Learned on the Internet

October 7, 2015

The internet has coarsened discourse, reduced comprehension and exacerbated dangerous and false views.
I know this sounds hyperbolic and reactionary. I will also acknowledge the internet has spread knowledge and opened up opportunities while connecting people and creating databases of knowledge that in years past would have been relegated to a select few ( in some cases ) or none (in others). But along with the good has come the bad. 
While I don’t discount the increase in potential knowledge the digital age has fostered I do however think the anonymity, distance and personal soapbox aspects of online communication have allowed everyone with an ignorant or prejudiced view to grandstand with a digital bullhorn. Since any person can comment on any article about any issue for the world to see with little to no filter or editorial screening has resulted in a fever-pitch spread of ignorance. Everyone thinks their opinion matters and that the world should hear it–even when that opinion is devoid of fact, logic, ethics or compassion and the subject is one completely misunderstood by the speaker.
The scariest potential of this internet commenting discourse was evident in the recent Oregon shooting tragedy. Of all that I have ever read perhaps one of the most disturbing things I read was the archived message board linked to the shooter. This board was linked by a few reports as possibly being the message board the shooter posted to the night before the crime. Upon that news breaking, apparently the FBI considered it worth considering– though the murky 4chan origins of the anonymous board makes pinpointing and verifying the information nearly impossible. Regardless, if this was indeed the killer’s last online conversations it is highly disturbing to say the least. Warning his fellow message boarders to watch the news on the north-west coast the following day this poster was egged on by people posting memes of past mass shooters, suggestions on who to target and how, and a general disrespect for life or value of any kind. 

Sickening as that board was, perhaps as scary to me was how similar it was to general comments on things as benign as a Yahoo news story about the President or a public Facebook page comment thread. Certainly it was more extreme–but in some cases just barely. Glance at the comments on a new story from any source and you’ll find genuine blanket hatred for entire groups of people or individual public persons. Message boards and comment threads have helped foment and foster hate speech that should have long ago been relegated to the fringes (or eradicated completely)–race supremacy, holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, etc. You’ll find “the Jews” and “Obama” listed as the root “cause” of anything if you read the comments to any internet story long enough. 

We most certainly have the right to speak freely and this includes in the digital world–I just question if people have developed as quickly as technology.

Anarchists are alive and well, they just don’t know it.

“The government isn’t good at anything. It’s never fixed anything. It’s not the government’s job to do anything, you have to do for yourself.”
How many similar comments have you heard in mainstream discourse since the “rise” of the Tea Party and their (unfortunate) influence on the GOP? If we are to take the likes of Cruz and so many Facebooking “pulled myself up by my bootstrap” tea-partiers seriously then the government has never and should never do anything. So why vote for candidates who think their job is to do nothing? I suppose so they can influence their coworkers to also do nothing. Such is the dream of the modern right–but there’s a better word for “no government” –anarchy.

You know, I certainly believe criticizing the government is a right and a responsibility for conscientious citizens–protesting our nations involvement in Vietnam or Iraq, for example (of course at that time such protest was done by the “unpatriotic”). But I also believe our government has “done things”, sometimes quite well, and I also believe that when they fail to do something we should work to reform (through votes and activism) the government so that it functions better–not so that it just ceases to function. How did the idea that “the government does nothing” grow so ubiquitous? Do people not drive on public highways, have fire departments, disaster relief, libraries, etc? Sure there are flaws in every system and we can debate how we are taxed and how that money is spent but to deny the need or use of the federal government is mind boggling. I’ve heard it stated how the states most filled with those who decry “big government” are the ones which would suffer most were they to be refused federal funds. 

Facts don’t matter–people don’t care.

Tying into my previous point as an example to introduce this one– People don’t think government does anything because they like the story they tell themselves in which they through their own sheer hard work and skill accomplished everything they have solely through their own drive. Conversely, people cling to the hope that through their hard work they will accomplish their goals and get out of their current situation. To accept that outside forces play a role in all of this can be disheartening. 

People mostly do not care what stats point to or what facts detail, they like the stories they tell themselves. People only care about news and “facts” that reinforce what they already believe.
It is frustrating to debate issues like gun control, immigration, the relationship between church and state in America, women’s access to health care, the needs of the middle class or any other pressing issue facing us in the US today because studies, facts and even concrete examples do little to sway many people’s opinion. 
Here’s the thing–facts should lead us to the truth even if that truth is painful. That which is true is so regardless of how we may feel about it and we can’t resolve any important issue without being open to the idea that what we are predisposition to believe may in fact be wrong. The internet, with all of its potential and wealth of knowledge cannot increase genuine knowledge in an individual or affect positive change if we all personally curate our “news” to fit our already held beliefs. 


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