With the attack on the US Capitol, the results of online radicalisation again made themselves clear. The scrambling of social media platforms to block certain accounts was too little too late: it is apparent that damage has been done, damage that is becoming clearer all the time and is not merely the problem of the USA, but also of Ireland, including us at Trinity, our friends, and our families, regardless of our political background. It’s time we all acted to stop it.
That social media discourse is polarising is obvious to anyone who casts a cold eye on the political content in their feed. The most brutal disciples of internet extremism are the far right, but polarisation stretches to all sides of the political spectrum, and almost every issue. Twitter recently treated me to the short, snappy opinions of left-wing friends.
The picture I got was miserable: it was often devoid of nuance or compassion, and presumed that, not only do we share the same opinions, but that we get to those opinions by the same route: because Biden is a centrist “we don’t like him”, Fine Gael are fascists and therefore it’s acceptable to cyber-bully their TDs, the Green Party have never done anything right for Ireland. I was struck by how people who in real life are friendly and reasonable, would publicly repeat or state opinions that a minute’s analysis would show to be derivative oversimplifications that, if taken to their logical conclusions, could have dangerous consequences.
Internet politics feeds tribalism, making us overly derivative of other people’s opinions, while losing compassion for them as complicated human beings.
I was struck by how people, who in real life are friendly and reasonable, would publicly repeat or state opinions that a minute’s analysis would show to be derivative oversimplifications
Because of the speed with which we react to things online, there is a lack of concern for checking what is true or not. People share something that broadly fits their worldview without checking its source or considering the implications of little omissions. I’ve seen many a worthy infographic telling me how to think about something or providing me with a list of facts. These facts may be, and the infographic may be promoting a good cause, but it is not information in any meaningful sense of the word: it is not-so-subtle propaganda, media that selectively presents information to promote a certain viewpoint.
The tendency to be swayed by ideas or “facts” that validate you without checking where they come from is particularly dangerous for young internet users, who have only a vague understanding of many issues and have not yet been taught how to be sufficiently critical of adults’ opinions.
When I was around 13, I used my now long-deleted Google+ account to keep in touch with friends from my time in America, but also to explore ideas of Marxism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarism that I had become interested in (I’ve been practising for the Arts Block for years, clearly). While my reading at the time included high-brow stuff like Noam Chomsky, I also consumed memes. As well as general emphasising of capitalist crimes and downplaying of communist ones, one of the few specific posts that I remember seeing involved a claim about the Rothschild family running banks all over the world.
In my eager anti-capitalist fervour I may indeed have liked or even shared this post (I confess the memory is blurry). It was not until a few years later that I learned such claims were antisemitic conspiracies. Not knowing the Rothschilds were Jewish, and long a part of the antisemitic imagination, and not knowing that the left too had a serious antisemitism problem, I could approve a post because it fitted my then-worldview of the evils of capitalism. I didn’t think to look up the details of the claim in a reputable source, and therefore could absorb an antisemitic lie without knowing it was such. I knew antisemitism was a bad thing, but I expected it to be explicit, easily identifiable, and it wasn’t, or not for a 13-year-old.
Internet politics feeds tribalism, making us overly derivative of other people’s opinions, while losing compassion for them as complicated human beings
There are things that can be done. Nationally and internationally, we need proper hate speech laws, already a government plan. I would also support the imposition of standards on online platforms at least as high as the ones faced by traditional publishers: tech companies cannot be trusted to take the responsibility of regulating hate speech and misinformation on platforms from which they make money. Democracy and human rights are too important to be their ward.
Individually, we can be more careful about our online presence, and interrogate arguments more critically, including the ones we initially agree with. We must be especially careful to listen to the children and younger teenagers in our lives, and encourage them to use their reason and their compassion to interrogate what they see online or they hear from their friends.
My own new year’s resolution is not to share any political “fact”, or even opinion, tweet, article, infographic or otherwise, that does not come from a reputable, mediated source. If I have an opinion of my own that I think is worth sharing publicly, I will only share it if I can get a mediated, edited platform for it, be that a Trinity publication or maybe the College Historical Society or the University Philosophical Society.
We are university students, and therefore we have a special responsibility to promote truth and nuance in discourse. We might as well put our stressfully acquired knowledge about referencing and sources to the service of democracy.