The Internet isn’t a witch, it’s you


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.

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  • Excellent!

    The Internet provides two great things –

    1)ANYONE can make themselves heard and freely available for others to read or view.

    2)ANYONE can educate themselves because there is no restriction on who can put up what. All sides to any issue are represented.

    In the glory days of newspapers we had true control of information. People such as Hearst, McCormick and Luce could put out all kinds of crap and it was difficult to check it out.

    Now, the curious person can find out the truth by going to the source. There is no excuse for ignorance, but we still face the problem of those who glory in their ignorance. There is no substitute for an open mind and good judgement.

    The perfect example of bone-headedness was in the NY Times recently in a story describing the Tea Party folks who say global warming is a hoax because, as one man said, “God wouldn’t allow it” and “we can’t harm the Earth because it was made for us”

    The Internet is fabulous but, as always, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

  • I should add that Kevin’s research in forums is what triggers my second point. My own experience with OC is that it’s not really the tools and structures themselves that are democratizing and maybe even unique about the internet, but the ways the tools actually get used. The best uses seem to get overlooked often because they aren’t what the creators of the technology intended, and sometime because they’re counter to the intention of the creators. But if you look at where the energy really is rather than where you think it would be cool for it to be according to your idea of the internet, I think the picture is that there’s nothing really new except that access is increased and there are more ways to reuse stuff. Somehow a lot of people that make big statements about the internet tend to overlook this.

  • blubonnet

    I like Stewart’s remark. He said all those crazy conspiracy theories out there, like, “911 was an outside job”.

    If you all want to categorize those of us that use science in alliance with our own objectivity and common sense, and ability to pursue study farther than you all, call us “conspiracy theorists” No, “Truthers” might be a term you use.

    What is worth mentioning, anyone with any level of integrity out there, the term Truther might be appropriate, because that is exactly what we can prove exists, that is contrary the the government theorists. NO theorizing of any sort is accepted by the organizations of reputable science in the Truth movement. Only verifiable fact. The 911 Truth Movement is now worldwide, The United States, probably still half believe the government still. That number continues to diminish, because of growing awareness, of the massive amount of evidence documenting in dozens and dozens of sources, video documentation of what happened, the Truth Movement continues to amass, along with testimonies of survivors. Yet the spineless pretend “journalists” or plants, whatever, continue to pretend they have a clue, and make foolish comments with absolutely nothing to back up perspectives on it, I encourage readers to do your own investigating of it, and not let yourself be intimidated by the misinformed.

    You have lost respect for a growing number of Americans with that remark. You exhibit either astonishing ignorance, or are a willing disinformation proponent. I suggest your readers to google up and watch…PSYWAR. It is mind boggling.

  • As much as Rich’s argument feels tired, it is certainly persistent! The arguments in both Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article and Jaron Lanier’s recent book start from a similar assumption: that the American polity is being duped by a naive faith in technology.

    But who told Rich that the internet would bring about a “democratic utopia”?

    Gladwell points vaguely to Clay Shirky and Lanier gestures at Kevin Kelly but is there any evidence that large numbers of people blindly believe that the internet will save America? If not, what is the source of these writers’ disillusionment?

  • Great piece, Paul. I haven’t read the Rich piece, so I’m kind of just making statements here, and agreeing with you.

    1) I think the frontier feeling on the internet that dominated 7 years ago or so, is now gone. It’s not a field-day for hacker types anymore where good ideas just spread because they’re good ideas. It’s now largely controlled by the same power structures that control things in the analog world. That doesn’t surprise me at all, but it does irk me sometimes.

    2) The argument about the internet balkanizing folks is, I think, bunk. People love talking to each other online. I think if you’re looking at the — for lack of a better word –“official” history of the internet that gets written about and discussed most often, we do see a lot of people hiding among their allies rather than branching out. But look at hobbyist-type stuff that is largely dismissed and it’s a different story. For example, the “miscellaneous” categories on forums covering all kinds of topics are often very popular, and often very political. So, you end up with thousands of Red Sox fans, or whatever, meeting on a forum about that common interest and then engaging in all kinds of conversation (political or not) at the same time. That kind of connection isn’t unique to the internet at all, but the internet accelerates it. And I think it’s a really important and overlooked aspect.