Contemplation: The Internet as a Rumor Mill

There is an article in The New York Times this morning called “In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious” that brings up another dark side of the social Internet.  For some time now I have maintained a steady interest in the way in which the Web 2.0 socialization of the Internet has in many ways contributed to a culture of unrestrained viciousness and lack of civility.  Certainly all that appears on any web forum is not all crap just like all that appears on the Internet as a whole is not all Porn (and actually, on this latter note, according to recent studies, much less of the Internet is actually pornography as common culture would have us believe.  Reasonable estimates suggest only about 3-4% of all Internet content is porn).  However, while there can be benefits and quality discussion created out of the various social tools on the Internet (forums, social networks, chat, etc.) there can also be a significant amount or relentless cruelty.

When I read articles like the one above, I feel a general sense of sadness and failing on behalf of the human species.  I’ve felt this way many times before reading comments on blog posts, of discussions on Reddit.  This sadness comes to me from the feeling that it is unfortunate that when provided a tool (like the Internet) that has so much good constructive potential is turned into a weapon of mindless base destruction.  It makes me wonder about our far distant neolithic ancestors and how they realised a piece of sharp rock could be just as good at bashing heads as cutting down a tree to build a hut.  Perhaps, the turning of any tool to weapon, can be called the Cain Effect; the turning of purpose from creation to destruction.

We could discuss the possible solutions to the more problematic cruelties of the Internet and the social web, but I suspect that no single (or combination of) solutions would really provide an overall satisfactory answer.  While certainly one issue that allows for more prevalence of these kinds of behaviors is the anonymity factor, we must recognize that removing any ability to be anonymous is not necessarily a solution as there are times that the ability to be anonymous is vital to reveal crimes and rights abuses.  We could ban users who turn to foul discourse, but the matter is far to subjective to ever police fairly.  Where one person sees and insult another may see a fair and reasonable critique.

One way in which I think we can all strengthen our ability to withstand the potential cruelties of the Internet, and further, to avoid falling into the act of adding to their masses, is to learn good critical thinking skills.  I know that saying “we all just have to think critically about this” sounds kind of lame, but I suspect that it is true.  Unfortunately there is a lot on the Internet that is just not all that good.  This includes everything from online retailers, to news sources, to blogs and forums.  If we enter the realm of the Internet with an overwhelming sense of acceptance, and believe that everything we see and read is going to be legitimate, then we are apt to be bitten in any number of ways (some potentially really dangerous).  However, if we approach out visits to the Internet with a reasonable amount of skepticism and critical analysis, we can probably avoid most negative effects of what the web can dish out (certainly some comments or opinions may hurt or offend us, but with a bit of logic and self-assurance, we can avoid allowing them to dominate and wound us forever).

I feel sadness for people who have suffer significantly at the hands of needless cruelty and lies on the Internet.  Furthermore, I do not think that we will ever see and end to it.  However, I do believe that if people make the effort, the Internet as a whole can be salvaged from becoming an overall cesspool of inanity and viciousness.  Yes, it will be work and require policing ourselves just as much as others.  It means calling out cheap shots when they are seen and not taking such shots ourselves.  It is being balanced and reasonable and remembering to include a bit of humility.  I hope these things are not too much to ask, because if they are, then it truly does speak the worse for our species as a whole.

~ by Nathaniel on September 20, 2011.

3 Responses to “Contemplation: The Internet as a Rumor Mill”

  1. I wonder if sometimes people believe something because it falls in line with what they want to be true? Sometimes I feel that people want to believe the worst about others, especially if it is someone they dislike or has opposing political viewpoints.

    • Absolutely agree. Unfortunately though, just becuase we want to believe something doesn’t make it true, or worth believeing. Often times believing something bad about somebody simply out of our personal dislikes of them allows for the proliferation of false and useless information.

  2. […] yesterday’s blog post I propsed the idea of something that I call the Cain Effect (albeit briefly).  After having […]

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