The State of Discourse in the Internet Age

image via Creative Commons

by Dylan Giles

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has written of the Internet: “I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together.” If he meant for people with the same opinions to collaborate, the Internet has worked very well. But sadly, Berners-Lee’s goal of encouraging cooperation between diverse people from around the world has not come to fruition.

Despite some success stories – including tools like Wikipedia and Khan Academy that usefully disseminate information – the Internet has accelerated the death of measured discourse in other regards. Anonymity makes it easier to sling insults. The Internet has even shortened the average human attention span, making it harder to sustain an intense dialogue.

What’s more, this election cycle revealed the extent to which Americans are using the Internet to establish and reinforce their own echo-chambers, rather than engaging one another productively. Millions of Americans get their news online; sixty-two percent primarily use social media, where there is no filter on accuracy. Facebook has recently rolled out measures to stop the spread of fake news, but it’s not clear that all platforms can do the same. Twitter, for instance, has neither the filtering tools nor the incentive to do so.

If a firm foundation of facts and news is not established, political discourse crumbles. The Internet has solidified the existence of separate news ecosystems, pitting The New York Times and CNN against Breitbart and Fox News. But the Internet cannot be blamed entirely for this gap in understanding; to a certain extent, our news environment mirrors our reality. Life for Americans in coastal cities bears little resemblance to the daily routines of those living in rural areas. As a result, discourses regarding more abstract political ideals – like those around white privilege that take place in the so-called “liberal media” – fail to resonate with people living in places where such concepts are seldom discussed. Likewise, a defense of globalization written on a university campus will likely mean little to a woman whose factory job was outsourced overseas. So when the left tries say “we know better,” focusing attention on abstract rhetoric, some people dig their heels in. They turn to the channels and the news sites that address interests and concerns they perceive as more concrete.

The Internet has helped perpetuate this divide, amplifying human inclinations and actions. But it is still a powerful tool that we can choose to use differently. Going forward, we must take advantage of the World Wide Web’s ability to bridge great distances and put diverse voices into dialogue. Though it’s helped widen political divides so far, it might also be one of our last chances to connect with one another in a country that is increasingly polarized.

Using the Internet as a tool of compassionate discourse might mean reading a relative’s comment on Facebook and spending some time inhabiting their point of view, rather than blocking them. It might mean scrolling through the home page of a news outlet you do not typically read and considering the root causes of the bias you see there. The first step is looking at others’ values, and reflecting on how they reached their political opinions. This advice cuts both ways; liberals and conservatives, Clinton and Trump voters alike will need to expand their viewpoints if the Internet is to help us bride the gaps in understanding that plague this country. Though we have failed to tap into its unifying potential thus far, the Internet is the most powerful tool at our disposal in the quest to hold this country together; it must be taken back.