Something has gone terribly wrong with the promises made for the Internet age.
According to its progenitors, the Internet would revolutionize communication. It was destined to interconnect the world. When it emerged in the late 90’s, nascent with its glittering butterfly wings, prognosticators from silicon valley and beyond foretold its myriad revolutions. Commerce. Education. Socialization. All would be remade by the juggernaut.
None less than Bill Gates promised that it would be “the town square for the global village of tomorrow.”
Its potential was manifold. Now, though, we live in the sloshing wake of those predictions.
And we have indeed, reaped a whirlwind of change.
Kara Alaimo at CNN is reporting today that the real lynchpin to Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election is primarily due to one huge, often-over-looked factor:
It seems the Orange-One-in-Chief had millions more following him on Twitter and Facebook and that his often lambasted Twitter feed was actually the centerpiece of what Alaimo’s source Mike Berland describes as “a continuous Trump rally that happen[ed] on Twitter at all hours.”
If you weren’t part of the fiesta, you might be forgiven for being unaware of its existence. It might have only manifested in the stray repugnant post on your own social media. A picture of guns promising reprisal if Clinton won. A “Trump that Bitch” picture where it didn’t belong. Aberrations, you probably thought as you turned up your nose, but no.
It was a movement and it happened all in 1’s and 0’s out of your sight range.
That is because you, too, are probably living in your own bubble. Increasingly, social media is allowing us to insulate ourselves and we are at greater and greater risk of what psychologists call confirmation bias–a type of cognitive dissonance whereby every new piece of information is filtered through whatever we already believe. Couple this with the effect of surrounding ourselves with similar opinions–which might as well be a check box on our Facebook settings–and we are all likely to find ourselves in an echo chamber, continuously hearing voices like our own telling us how right, right, right we are.
I recently tried to exit my own bubble and see what was happening out there in Trumpland. I spent a few hours and several thousand words trying to engage with “the other side.” When I wasn’t being berated or called a “pussy,” I managed to find a few people willing to talk about the election and their choices.
What I heard, though, were more sound bytes from the echo chamber.
Clinton’s criminality was taken for granted in these circles. A fact. The lack of evidence of any actual criminal culpability dismissed because of her presumed influence.
In one interesting exchange, when I asked what issues were important to one Trump voter, she argued that she supported Trump because he would rebuild our military. I pressed on what needed to be “rebuilt” in the most powerful fighting force ever known to man and ended up getting the let’s-agree-to-disagree tour of the exit.
Other issues where I might see a dire problem–climate change looms large–were handily dismissed as frauds.
In a recent series of videos on CNN, Van Jones was told that if Clinton was elected it very well might mean a “civil war” because that was how desperate people had become.
Much has been written about how we are living in a divided America, where each half of the country occupies its own alternate reality. It’s tempting for me to point out that the Trumpified universe seems divorced from the facts. Our military is unchallengeable and its professionalism second-to-none (and thank God for it with reckless Russians constantly trying to provoke us). Our economy has made the strongest recovery in the developed world. Objectively, things are looking up.
So what is so wrong that would prompt so much desperation?
A lot of commentators are fixated by the racial dimensions of this election, by the sense that Trump’s victory is the product of a resurgent white nativism.
But whence the resurgence? Why now? How did the same country that elected Barack Obama turn so quickly to Donald Trump? What force could possibly account for such a rapid transformation?
But we know the answer, don’t we. There’s only one force in the twenty-first century that moves this fast. Its speed, its capacity for transformation, is exactly what was promised. It was a selling point.
We aren’t in Trump’s America. We’re in Twitter’s world.
This is the empire the Internet built. A kingdom of instability.
Tenuous. Fleeting. Ephemeral.
And utterly fracking irrational.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is having to answer a lot of questions right now about “fake news,” the totally invented stories that whiz around social media perpetuating myths even as they reinforce the beliefs of those inside their respective bubbles. Talking heads wonder if buying Snopes and incorporating it into the Facebook machine might make the difference–might turn the tide back and make the Internet the democracy engine we were promised.
But the genie is out of the bottle, I suspect.
The web was promised to us as an open platform. So it is. Not long ago we saw how social media’s success during the Arab Spring was quickly darkened by ISIS’s command of Twitter and other sharing sites where promotional videos were tailored to the ambitions of would-be Jihadies–a whole other kind of bubble, I suppose.
Even censorship-obsessed China cannot maintain control over social media. There savvy Internetites use code words for well-known topics to avoid the censors. It’s a tactic white nationalists have adopted here in the U.S. This alt-web for white racists is a toxic stew so foul that poor Pepe the frog has been coopted as a hate symbol.
But I no longer blame the Internet Cassandras for their predictions for the Internet. It is as great as they say it is. The problem is not the technology–it’s the users.
We get the Internet we deserve, it seems, and frail, conflicted, irrational human kind simply was not ready for a free, open, democratizing information Smörgåsbord.