Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I Blame the Internet

I’ve been thinking about a lot of the divisiveness and polarization I’ve seen lately. I’ve been thinking about a lot of the strong opinions…and downright weird opinions I’ve seen lately. I’ve thinking about the marked increase of people believing weird conspiracy theories lately. And I have one thing to blame for it.

The Internet.

Don’t get me wrong…I love the Internet. For me it’s the library that never closes. I can go there to look up anything and usually get a decent answer…even if it’s one that I wasn’t expecting. It’s the mall that never closes…and that has older or specialty items that most brick and mortar stores don’t want to keep in stock. And it’s a way to keep in contact with people who are hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from me. But for all my love of the Internet, it’s caused some very serious problems over the past few decades, which have led to not only our current state of political polarization, but the whole anti-vaxxer controversy.

And it’s time we talked about it.

The good thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice. The bad thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice…even people who should just keep their mouths shut because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re jerks. Or both. If you’ve looked at the comments page for any magazine, newspaper, or online forum, you’ll see what I mean.

It used to be that because of space limitations, the “letters to the editor” section only printed a small sampling of the letters, and those from nutcases were weeded out. But now, with the “unlimited space” of the Internet most of those online forums are letting everything through unless it’s been specifically flagged as abusive. And this is a problem for many reasons…not the least of which is that sometimes bad information can outshout good. Or even allowing bad information to show up in the first place lends it an air of possible legitimacy, which it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s “too much trouble” to moderate these forums, but maybe those in charge could take a page from the print side, and just limit the amount of feedback they publish, and only show a sampling of what they got…an intelligent sampling.

Here’s the other problem…it used to be that if you had some whacked-out conspiracy theory, if you had some piece of misinformation or disinformation that you were spewing, or if you were just way out there in general; you were surrounded by enough “normal” people that they could talk you down from where you were with facts. Facts that came from places we all agreed were reliable sources. But now, the Internet has provided these people with easy access to the other people out there who share their opinion or believe their misinformation; and once you’ve got a group of 10,000 on the Internet, you feel a sense of legitimacy.

I used to joke that the situation is so bad that you could probably find a group that thinks that picking your nose and eating it not only isn’t gross, but that shares recipes. This was a joke until in checking this out, I found numerous links to articles suggesting that this actually wasn’t so bad after all. On the more serious side, I’ve heard of “support” websites for people with anorexia and bulimia that give them tips on how to hide their symptoms from “busybodies.”

And what constitutes a reliable source? Is it simply one that agrees with your already-held opinion? Is it the one with the best graphics? With software like Photoshop, anyone can easily and cheaply create a professional-looking graphic and put it out there as “truth”; and people will believe it without taking the time to double-check it…or won’t believe the fact-checkers because they’re “obviously biased” and “are part of the conspiracy.”

I said earlier that sometimes I get an answer that I’m not expecting. That means one that didn’t fit in with what I had originally believed. When that happens, what do I do? Well, I check for more information. I check to find out if this new information is really true.

But…the Internet also allows us to only look for “sources” that “prove it false.” It allows us to back further and further into our little corners, without considering that maybe we’re wrong and that the other person might have a point.

The result has been the divisiveness and polarization we’ve seen in the years leading up to this election season.

I said in the beginning that I blame the Internet. But in reality, the Internet is only a tool…one that can be used well or foolishly, for good or for evil. In reality, I blame laziness and our inability to be challenged by another opinion…our inability to accept the fact that we may be wrong.

Or as Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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