Article from Issue #57 (May 7, 2023)
Fascism Will Destroy Itself, Part 5: The Polarized Internet
by Mark Hall
When the Internet first went mainstream, it promised to bring the world closer together. Information would be available to anyone instantly any time they wanted it. Borders would fall as we all unite together as one global village.
It didn't take long for everything to go bad.
Instead of uniting as one, the internet has instead created more division than ever. Whichever view you have on the world, there are people who share it, and there are communities and social media groups online full of people who share your opinion. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. It's good to be able to connect with like-minded people.
But the problem comes when that group of like-minded people becomes the ONLY source of information for you. Which will happen in today's internet because everything you do online and on social media is tracked and advertisers and other groups are collecting a profile based on your activity. And that profile drives an algorithm which will tend to serve you more content based on what you already believe. And everyone you communicate with will also believe the same thing because you have chosen to only communicate with people who share your beliefs. Your ideas will be reinforced in this echo chamber. But it won't stop there. In an environment where all disagreeing voices are silenced, your beliefs will not only be reinforced but strengthened into a progressively more extreme version and you will become far more resistant to any ideas that disagree with your own. The online profile you've created for yourself has placed you into an alternate universe with its own rules that may be inconsistent with actual reality. And everyone else online has chosen their own "realities". So any interaction with people outside your own bubble is only going to be in the form of an argument, where you're defending your viewpoint and they're defending theirs, and neither side is willing to step outside their bubble and try to find an objective truth somewhere in between.
This current state of the internet provides a perfect breeding ground for extremism and fascism. It's bad enough that this has a tendency to happen all on its own due to the nature of the algorithms. But that's not all that's happening. Repressive regimes and extremist groups use this to their advantage to spread disinformation and recruit people to their causes.
Deliberate internet disinformation campaigns have resulted in massive real-world changes on multiple occasions. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal proved that personal information through Facebook was being used without users' consent for political influence campaigns based on detailed psychological profiles of Facebook users.
Repressive governments routinely pay hundreds of users in Troll farms to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories in support of their governments or policies. This is in addition to the blocks and restrictions that those countries place on the internet for their own citizens.
Escaping the Echo Chamber
So what can you do about that? Even though the internet is loaded with misinformation and sometimes it may seem that the truth is buried under a massive pile of garbage, there are still ways to find the truth. Many fact-checking websites exist, such as Snopes and Politifact and many others. Fact-checkers typically quote their sources and explain the logical steps leading up to accepting or refuting a claim. And it's always good to check something through more than one fact-checker to be extra certain. Wikipedia is also a great place to look for objective verified truth. Sometimes Wikipedia is less reliable for information about currently ongoing events when the misinformation is still abundant online, but once the dust settles, Wikipedia typically separates the facts from the nonsense.
Also, it's good to be aware of your own social media profile (which also follows you through the rest of the internet). Be aware of whether something has been served to you through your activity profile or through one of your online groups, or whether it's something you have found directly.
Finally, try to get outside of your bubble. At least once in a while. You may think the other side is completely wrong. That may even be largely correct, but if you actually take the time to see the other viewpoint you may find that they have some valid points that you wouldn't have thought about if you hadn't opened your mind.