Over the weekend, the New York Times treated us to an Op-Ed by liberal polemicist Frank Rich excoriating the Internet for failing to deliver some-kind idealized digital democracy. Rich’s argument is largely incoherent and has been appearing in many columns written by professional opinion writers.
Rich’s straw man Internet, the one heralded as the great equalizer bringing the have-nots up to the level of the haves, is decimated as Rich portrays the Internet as yet another space where the current Masters of the Universe can lie and obfuscate their way into people’s hearts. I don’t think anyone can deny that the Internet is yet another platform where those who wish to convey falsehoods, can and do. However, I cannot see how this is anything new.
Mark Kirk and Richard Blumenthal may have lied about their personal biographies, but they could have lied (and did!) on any number of platforms. It’s not as though we didn’t have lying politicians before the Internet. Elliot Spitzer and David Vitter were both avatars of morality before Facebook and Twitter were created.
The same can be said about Rich’s tired observation that the Internet allows lies about President Barack Obama’s place of birth to circulate widely. A lot of people believe erroneously that Obama is a Muslim or was not born in America. This is not due to the Internet. How many people believed erroneously that President Bill Clinton–or his wife–killed Vince Foster or ran a cocaine dealing ring in Arkansas? What percentage of Americans believed that Warren Harding had African-American ancestors? How many believe that 9/11 was an inside job?
Lies have always existed and always perpetuate themselves. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a good example. Maybe Rich wants to blame Guttenberg’s press for that. Unfortunately for that argument, prior to Guttenberg’s invention, rumors ran rampant through Europe that Jews conspired to poison wells and thus spread the Black Death — a similar argument is made in the Protocols.
Humans lie. They are filled with potential for both great evil and great good. We know this. The Internet is just another platform, another tool, that is made up of this humanity.
Thus, the Internet isn’t perfect. Of course, it provides a platform to lie and to obfuscate through PR. The Internet, because it is run by humans, is inherently human, with all the inherent flaws.
The Internet isn’t a witch. It’s you.
While the Internet allows the continued practice of negative behavior that existed before, it also allows good behavior that was previously impossible. The most recent example of this is Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign.
Savage is using the Internet, mostly through YouTube, to talk directly to gay teenagers in America and the world who may be confused, threatened or considering suicide because they feel that the torment they feel as gay teenagers will never end. Savage launched the campaign with a video he made with his husband talking about their experiences as gay teenagers. The campaign has spread to include videos from firemen, ex-Marines and Tim Gunn, the star of the television show Project Runway all letting isolated teens know that there is a positive future that awaits them.
If reaching out through fiber-optic cables and over wireless networks–something that could not be done in an analog world–can save young people from suicide, running away or giving up that makes up for the hundred or so people who think that Barack Obama is a Muslim-Nazi-werewolf.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve been privileged with the fears of a professional opinion writer. David Brooks, also of the New York Times, wrote about his fears that the Internet was driving us into ideological segregated communities. This ignores that Americans have long been drawn to sources of information and communities that support their own personal biases and views.
It should come as no surprise that professional opinion writers would cast aspersions about a medium that threatens their profession. The Internet has given everyone a forum to cast their opinion, whether it be right or not, tempered or inflamed. Perhaps this is why these opinion writers sound like a Renaissance Pope challenged by the mass distribution of printed materials.
There are more and more writers on the Internet, some equally as talented as the high paid elites at top newspapers. And helping these writers, the new and the old, is the ever-increasing amount of raw information flowing online.
As Gordon Gekko said in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, “The most valuable commodity I know of is information.” Journalists, bloggers and those who write the stories of our world now have access to more information about government, science, law and so on than ever before.
Transparency is not simply what we write about ourselves on Facebook and Twitter, it is the ongoing dissolution of the barrier between the public and information.
Rich derides the Internet for failing to do what “analog journalists” do: report and tell the story about lying politicians, overbearing corporations and corruption in all sectors of the world. In many cases, though, it is the Internet itself that has enabled these “analog journalists” and countless bloggers to connect to the raw information that becomes the center-piece of an investigation or report.
The ready online availability of campaign finance information, personal financial disclosures, raw data from the Securities and Exchange Commission, earmarks, legislation, White House visitor logs and so on have allowed countless reporters to tell stories at a lower cost and in a faster time frame.
Social ties have also aided journalists in combing through massive piles of documents. The news blog Talking Points Memo relied on their followers to comb through hundreds of documents related to the improper firing of United States Attorneys during the Bush Administration. Talking Points Memo received the Polk Award for the work they did with the help of their audience.
While Rich concentrates on the negatives that exist on the Internet, negatives that have always existed no matter the era, he ignores the positives that are new and promising. The Internet reduces the costs of connecting people together, increases our ability to reach out to those in need and provides an endless bandwidth for information to help journalists, bloggers, writers, scholars and the public.