Learning the news: ‘Big brother’ can’t fix our internet problems

Our optimism that the internet would further democratize free speech has evolved into concern on how to control the many downsides, writes Roger Plothow.

It may be worse than we thought.

In the nascent days of the worldwide web, there was much optimism that it would lead to a democratization of free speech. Some idealists predicted the instantaneous nature of Internet communications would help us avoid misunderstandings, thereby reducing the likelihood of conflict, including war.

Of course, the opposite has proven true. Instantaneous communication, it seems, allows us to say things before we think them through. Before you know it, what might otherwise have been a simple misunderstanding becomes a viral blowup.

Before the phenomenon of fake news became the topic of worldwide discussion, the Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed nearly 2,000 thought leaders on the impact of social interaction online, and the results aren’t pretty. Here’s how Pew summarized the findings:

“Many experts fear uncivil and manipulative behaviors on the internet will persist – and may get worse. This will lead to a splintering of social media into (artificial intelligence)- patrolled and -regulated ‘safe spaces’ separated from free-for-all zones. Some worry this will hurt the open exchange of ideas and compromise privacy.”

Part of the problem is the anonymous nature of the Internet. Anonymity encourages reckless communication, as we learned when the Post Register launched a message board on its web site years ago. It was unproductive and nasty. After we required participants to identify themselves, the board became a battleground for a couple-dozen folks who seemed more intent on verbal skirmishing than having a frank but respectful debate.

That’s just one small example of the larger issue. Social media are awash in fake news, written shouting matches and ignorance. They are vehicles for the feckless and embittered.

There’s a danger in government over-reach in potential solutions, which those interviewed by Pew often mentioned.

“The majority in this canvassing,” Pew wrote, “were sympathetic to those abused or misled in the current online environment while expressing concerns that the most likely solutions will allow governments and big businesses to employ surveillance systems that monitor citizens, suppress free speech and shape discourse via algorithms, allowing those who write the algorithms to sculpt civil debate.”

Government restrictions or even attempts by social media giants like Facebook to provide correctives won’t do the trick or could even make things worse. The solutions must be more organic and fundamental, ultimately arising from a cultural shift in which we, the people, demand a change.

This undoubtedly comes across as naïve. It probably is, but it comes from a place of deep concern, even desperation. But we’ve come together before in the face of crisis, and this is a crisis, to be sure. Parents, educators and leaders of every stripe will need to insist on making media literacy a top priority or the trouble brewing now can only worsen.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.