How the internet is tearing us apart


How the internet is tearing us apart

Initially, the web held the promise of more free speech, but WESSEL VAN RENSBURG says letting everyone talk to everyone does not necessarily lead to more rational discussion.

“WHEN we use a network, the most important asset we get is access to one another" wrote Clay Shirky about the internet and social media in Here Comes Everybody in 2008. The idea that the internet would not only be innovative technology but that it would liberate ordinary people, help them connect and express themselves — and even spread democracy — was pervasive until less than a decade ago.

The antidote to bad speech was more speech, and from this accumulation of speech the truth will out. And how can you stop speech now that we have the internet? This idea of the beneficial impact of the free flow of ideas is not only well established in liberal Western political philosophy but has also become accepted wisdom. John Milton, John Locke and Voltaire all talked about it.

John Stuart Mill went further and said speech and deliberation create “a marketplace of ideas" where the best will win out. Free speech would fuel progress and be an essential tool for creating healthy democratic societies.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans

Today, democracy is in decline worldwide and conflict is on the rise. Inside democracies, in particular, polarisation has become endemic and corrosive. It should be dawning on us that the opposite of the received wisdom might be true: giving everybody the opportunity to speak to everybody will not usher in a golden age of reason. Could it be that it sows division and chaos to such an extent that it might actually threaten democracy?

To be sure, the media ecosystem of liberal democracies had its critics before the internet arrived. You needed deep pockets to be a publisher. You had to buy huge printing presses and have big distribution networks, or own a TV station, hire lots of specialised staff and set up an advertising operation — all of which required substantial capital.

This critique was captured quite well by Noam Chomsky in his book, Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky argued that the big corporate institutions required to run media had inherent ideological biases and would selectively frame what was in the scope of things that could be discussed. This was especially true since they were often funded by advertising. (Elon Musk rediscovered the disciplining effect of advertising much later.)

The result was that media manufactured middle-of-the-road consensus in society. The left, in particular, had a problem with this media ecosystem because it could see the influence of commercial interests constraining calls for a more egalitarian society.

But then we got the internet and social media, and the left placed its hopes in bypassing the consent-manufacturing. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

One of the earliest critics of online media, who sensed that something was not quite right, was Eli Pariser. In The Filter Bubble: What The Internet is Hiding From You (2011), he posited that when we're online, we tend to befriend people with the same opinions as ours. This  influences what we see, while algorithms reinforce this process by way of personalisation: showing us content we will like. We will not be exposed to information challenging our beliefs.

The filter bubble theory rang true to us because it linked quite nicely to our belief in the marketplace of ideas. Remember, these theories suggested that if we were exposed to diverse opinions, we would engage in deliberation and debate, ultimately leading us to enlightenment. Now, research has shown that Pariser was partly correct. We do prefer befriending people with the same opinions. However, he was also partly incorrect. Even on platforms where algorithms don't prioritise posts with the most engagement (like Mastodon's chronological feed), we tend to notice, read, share and comment more on posts from or about those we disagree with, especially when they communicate something we consider morally reprehensible.

Humans are a highly social species and we evolved a number of psychological traits to maintain tightknit and cohesive small groups, because this massively upped our chances of survival. So morality is an evolved feature to help us cooperate and manage social groups. We are hardwired to notice and respond to violations of cooperative behaviour over other things. And in small groups, this is effective in helping to maintain them.

So, the problem is not that we are not exposed to the other side; it is that we see too much of what it gets up to, and only the most extreme examples. Research confirms that compared to everyday life offline, people are significantly more likely to learn second-hand about an “immoral event" in an online context than from print, radio and TV combined. This familiarity with the wrongs others do breeds contempt. And smart algorithms primed to show us content that gets the highest engagement only make it worse.

Unsurprisingly, we are prone to think that these extreme examples of the opposing side's behaviour and perceived immorality are representative of its overall views and conduct. We discount, for example, the incentives to engage in status seeking, and how they affect what we see online. The surest signal of status online is follower count, which also usually improves a person's ability to have their messages seen by many more people. And the best way to build follower counts is by posting emotive content of an extreme nature. The result is that most attention-grabbing content is generated by only a few people.

What researchers call third-party punishment is an evolved trait where we take costly action to bring another person into line. It's even observed among young children, where for example a child will give up their own position on a slide to punish another child who did not wait their turn.

And we are more likely to act when we have an audience, probably an evolved trait because it signals that we are a dependable group member. Online, we always have an instant audience, and by punishing we maximise the possibility of attention and gain status. Yet this third-party punishment was meant to be costly. It made evolutionary sense only when we had to live our day-to-day lives in small groups with those we punish. Not when it's a person who lives on the other side of town, or even the planet.

Technology changes the way we interact with each other, but it's indifferent to the outcome. So while the one-to-many printing press is associated with enlightenment and the formation of large communities like the nation state, digital's many-to-many megaphone might just have put that process into reverse.


BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.