I believe that the Internet and the information it promotes, whether true or false, harmful or heartening, is our great responsibility to keep afloat.
I spend too much time on the internet. I do. I check Facebook at least five times a day. I’m not even sure why I check Facebook. I don’t post that much anymore. It’s nice to know what people are up to but I don’t need to check the damn thing all the time. Yet I check. I used to worry about how many likes I got on the Facebook but I couldn’t communicate the reason why I cared. I just did. I read somewhere that getting more likes on the Facebook can trigger dopamine in the brain. It’s like when you give a dog a treat. Then they repeat the behaviour that got them that treat. Over and over. Makes sense to me. I am a dopamine junkie after all.
I take public transport quite a bit. On those days when I’m not glued to my phone (or reading), I sit around and watch. Every now and then I see almost every single passenger glued to their cell phone. We’ve all seen it, whether on the bus, at dinner, or in some other public setting. Doesn’t make it any less weird.
We’re all jacked into these machines. Jacked into these virtual networks. I guess it’s been that way for over a decade, around a decade and a half for me. It’s gotten much easier to connect though. Much more widespread.
Hell, six years ago I was working an NGO job (aid worker stuff) on the northern border of South Sudan. There had been some conflict issues. Food was scarce in the market. There were a lot of people on the road who were fleeing the conflict. Water, sanitation, just about everything you could think of was an issue. As long as the cell tower had fuel though and you had 3G on your phone (which most people did), you could still connect to the Internet. Amazing.
The Internet provides a connection like never before. There’s no way I’d be able to keep in touch with the majority of the people I’ve met during my travels without it. The Internet provides quick access to information. More than the human brain can handle. Still, it can be a very good thing, depending on what you’re consuming and how you’re consuming it.
Fake news, for example. We don’t even have a definition for fake news that we all agree on. If you quickly Google “definition of fake news” you’ll find this:
“Fake news, or hoax news, refers to false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Fake news websites and channels push their fake news content in an attempt to mislead consumers of the content and spread misinformation via social networks and word-of-mouth.”
Generally, I take that to mean news where the source itself is not in any way, shape or form a newscaster or a news organisation, who are intentionally pretending to be one by making stuff up and publishing it like it’s legitimate.
I have a very clear example. A while back a friend of mine sent me an article where a man said that he had been paid by the Clinton campaign to protest a Trump rally. It was published on a site that said “ABC” but it wasn’t the real ABC news site. Later on, that same man was interviewed by The Washington Post and he himself said he was a purveyor of fake news, he just made shit up because that got him paid. That’s a cut and dry example. Now you can point to things where maybe you could consider it fake news or maybe you couldn’t, but this one was cut and dry.
That didn’t convince my friend, though. I wasn’t even trying to change his mind about anything at that point. I was just pointing out that the purveyor of that particular article had said himself that he made it up. That’s it. It didn’t matter. My friend for whatever reason didn’t want to admit that this particular article wasn’t true or that even if it wasn’t true it didn’t matter, because he felt that his point – or not even his point; his worldview – was the right one, the only one to have. That’s all that mattered.
That’s a slippery slope. When we start saying facts don’t matter and let our worldviews be shaped by things that simply aren’t true, that’s a problem. Confirmation bias. If I want to prove whatever I think is true, then I can find somewhere on the Internet to tell me that’s true. Happens on all sides of the divide; conservative, liberal, whatever.
If the Internet is a big web of ideas, some real, some not, some true, some half-true, some false, and those ideas are just bouncing around waiting for us – the end user – to pick them up, then we have to be very careful about how we engage and, more importantly, how we educate about this web. The Internet is a tool. It’s our responsibility to use that tool wisely both for ourselves and others.
I don’t want to digress into politics right now though. This isn’t about politics. It’s about having too much information at our fingertips and not knowing how to handle that. We don’t have the time or the care to figure out what’s really real and what’s just bullshit. So the virtual world becomes the way we see the real world. Even though that’s not necessarily the way the real world really is.
The spread of ideas, almost anywhere in the world instantly, is a pretty new thing. TV, radio, and the global economy are one thing; anyone who has traveled around and seen Starbucks and KFC, not to mention Western styles of fashion and music, from Thailand to Lebanon to Nairobi (no Starbucks in Nairobi though, sorry!), can attest to that. This idea that I can just click a few buttons and have access to all these ideas in a microsecond, it’s crazy and it can be dangerous.
To me, therein lies the problem, and the answer. If the Internet is a big web of ideas, some real, some not, some true, some half-true, some false, some influenced by hate, some influenced by fear, some influenced by need, some influenced by compassion, and those ideas are just bouncing around waiting for us – the end-user – to pick them up, then it’s our responsibility. If the Internet is a virtual web connecting everything from our friends on Facebook to false news purveyors to networks of hate and violence, we have to be very careful about how we engage and, more importantly, how we educate about this web. If the Internet is a tool, it’s our responsibility to use that tool wisely both for ourselves and others.
It’s important we become more aware of the power of the Internet; because if it is a tool, it’s important we learn to use it responsibly for our own betterment and the betterment of society.
Otherwise, it will just end up using us.