The Coarsening Effect Of The Web On Social And Political Discourse

The world wide web was launched in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Flashback to An epic revolution

First, a quick clarification of two terms many of us use interchangeably, but are, in fact, distinct–

“The Internet is a huge network of computers all connected together. The World Wide Web is a collection of web pages found on this network of computers.”

A limited web was launched in 1989 as a means of automatically sharing information among scientists, universities and research institutes around the globe. But it was in late 1990 that British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee launched the first true website on his NeXT computer at CERN. He then selflessly uploaded his World Wide Web Software into the public domain to prevent it ever being owned by any single company or governing body.

Within the few years of that then uncelebrated launch, people were taking for granted their new ability to search the web for information. We now have over 1 billion websites in the world. By 2020 it’s estimated there will be 50 billion devices connected to the web sharing information at an ever-increasing speed, generating both growing opportunities and challenges for businesses.

Coping with the downside

In the beginning, it was widely believed that the web would generate a new era of understanding between people across all the diverse demographic and ideological categories that differentiate us. It was hoped that Internet-based discourse would be more respectful, more sophisticated and tied to verifiable facts as the final determiner of what was true.

Unfortunately, that now sounds incredibly naive. Anyone logging into Facebook or Twitter in recent years, especially in the months since the 2016 US political campaign began, has been hit with a flood of shrill, ugly and mindless posts. This has had the effect of pulling more people into an echo chamber of extremist vitriol. To make matters much worse, those who feel isolated or marginalized are especially vulnerable to hateful, bogus posts. The effects include real world tragic consequences, as with increasing Islamic State recruitment and incitement of terrorist attacks.

To some extent, this is just a reflection of the news, never known for accentuating the positive. Yet, even the most principled bloggers feel pressed to respond instantaneously to breaking developments, before the true story has emerged. People doing so fuel a rapid contagion of knee-jerk reactivity. In-depth, investigative journalism seems to have been replaced by mean-spirited speculation presented as fact.

Case In Point

Recently, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced they were giving away about $45 billion to celebrate the birth of their daughter. Details of how the money would be distributed were not provided. That didn’t matter at all to Twitter trolls who within a few minutes of their announcement passed judgment on their amazing generosity, in many cases attacking them based on their wild speculation.

What Can Be Done?

Presidential candidates are responding to this crisis with different and overlapping proposals. Both Trump and Clinton, for example, have suggested we shut down segments of the Internet to enhance national security. Most IT experts concur that this isn’t desirable or feasible. Countries that censor or isolate their national Internet not only undermine personal freedom, but also the sale and distribution of their products and services.