Photo credit: Anonymous9000
The internet is perhaps the clearest example of how even the greatest strides in history come with troubling consequences. Steam power would lead to industry and pollution, the Enlightenment to despotism, and the internet, the world’s greatest collection of shared information? The bitter twist is that we know as little as we did before.
Of course, no one would argue that as a group, the population of the UK does not, in the modern day, know more than our ancestors in the past. Indeed, we have a greater range of knowledge than ever, and the internet gives us more and more sources to access. Traditional media, new media, CNN, BBC, Buzzfeed, Infowars, thousands of talking heads, coupled with social media, through which anyone can post their opinion and share it to millions.
Today then, it’s so easy to know everything, but crucially, we understand nothing.
The motivation to write this piece came from a conversation I had around the time Trump dropped out of the Paris agreement. Disappointed and angry voices filled the internet, and a friend was telling me how much they hated Trump for acting so rashly. I never pretend to be knowledgeable on every issue, so I simply asked what it was the Paris accords did, and how they aimed to help the environment. Struggling for words, they could only reply, “It lowers carbon emissions”, but how? The person couldn’t tell me. That’s because they didn’t know, and if I asked them what criticisms had been posed about the accords, I’m sure they wouldn’t be able to tell me those either.
This piece isn’t about Trumps decision or my opinion on it, I’m as uneasy about his choice as many of us are. But the example highlights an issue I’ve been noticing more and more, particularly with young people. I’ve talked before about how easy it is online to react to an incendiary headline and immediately feel angry, and how anger has never lended itself well to thoughtful discussion, even less to introspection. The latest election campaign has only served to highlight this issue even more. Instead of anyone questioning why, now the immediate response is, how could they? How could Trump win? How could they be angry about immigrants? How could people disagree with me?
This reaction is one with its roots firmly stuck in the internet, and as such has been more impactful among young adults, including myself, for whom non-digital media has little influence over. It’s here where most news is shared and discussed, and it’s here we find unique echo chambers that don’t represent the outside world. For many young people, this means a dominantly left wing area that doesn’t challenge them to defend their views. More damagingly, it doesn’t encourage people, right or left, young or old, to understand each other’s arguments.
There is now nothing more divisive in society than talking politics. It is beyond comprehension that if I posted my voting intentions, or attempted a discussion on particular issues involving race, sex or immigration, I would receive boundless hate about how awful I was, and would be disowned by people from either end of the spectrum. Another sweet irony when many talk about how important “Tolerance” and “Freedom of expression” are to them.
This is the unique problem that the internet poses. The failure to receive challenge, and furthermore, to genuinely question your own beliefs, which is ultimately the hardest job of all, has been abandoned. It allows Alex Jones to blindly defend Donald Trump and wade yet deeper into his tin foil hat conspiracy theories. It allows CNN to continue its rolling negative coverage of the new President, stooping so low they even criticised his ice cream preferences. Die hard Corbyn supporters see nothing alarming about unlimited public spending. Committed Tories don’t understand the struggle of living on diminishing benefits. It’s all because none of them need to. No one needs to dig deeper into a headline, or to hold off an instant reaction.
Just yesterday I spotted a post about corporation tax in the UK. It was based on sound data from KPMG, that showed British corporation tax as one of the lowest in the Western world, and was used by a group to argue that wealthy corporations had nowhere to go to avoid tax, thus criticising Theresa May for daring to lower it further. It took one google search for me to find out that America’s average corporation tax is far lower than ours, and works on a completely different system, and only a few more minutes of research and some common sense to know that corporations dodge tax by setting up headquarters in micro states like Luxembourg with next to no corporate tax rates. Nevertheless, the comments reflected a total consensus on the issue, as if one internet post was enough investigation to totally settle an issue.
Young people take in so much information in modern life, but we truly understand so little. We buy into consensus politics, afraid or too unaware to present an opposing view. Social media isn’t a platform for debate, it’s a platform for political indoctrination, and in the comment section the mob rules, so you better be on the right side. Are you looking to become a Communist? A Fascist? A Jihadist? Look for it and you will find it, and you never need to challenge your views along the way.
The internet is polarising. It’s misinforming. It’s dangerous.
But it’s also transformative, provides connection and can foster understanding.
The crucial element in the equation is you. No one can tell you what to look at or how to use it properly, because then the beauty of the internet would be lost. Theresa May’s solution to terrorism, to in effect establish total state monitoring, is no fix. As an individual, it is your responsibility to use the internet wisely. Question sources, challenge points of view, and open your mind to ideas that might disturb your world view.
To be a citizen in a democracy is a privilege, but it comes with a duty. A duty to stay informed, so that you might make those decisions you truly believe are the best for the future of the country. Use the internet as a tool for this, but don’t let it use you.
“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell.