flame war

2016: The Year the Internet took over

What a year. It started with David Bowie dying and somehow went downhill from there. A rabid media stirring up hate forced the British people to shoot themselves in the foot, whilst in the USA hate and intolerance won the day- if not the popular vote.

I feel this year the internet took over political debate.Now, many people get their news from Facebook or Twitter. It was a year in which the internet became central to how information is received and shared. No longer the underdog, used by a few, it is the mainstream way we connect, publish and communicate. There’s no escaping it. I’m using it right now.

I’ve grown up with the internet and seen it evolve steadily over the years, from a curiosity into a human right. As more and more people have joined, the rate of information has increased exponentially as well. I’ve been a member of many forums and watched several degrade from civilised discussion into slanging matches over nothing. Many people pile in. Sides are chosen and barely any discussion can be had without someone dragging it back to the original dispute. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. I’ve seen people threaten death over which type of camera is best.

Flame wars like this take over whole forums. This has now bled into the ‘real world.’ People pick their sides, then pick evidence to confirm their sides. Flame wars aren’t just limited to online forums now. Conversations between strangers can descend into politics, as people quickly deride the other as Remoaners or Kippers. Trump supporters or those who think he is the anti-christ. People cast the other side as different and alien, then refuse to listen to anything they say. It only seems to be getting worse.

The problem is this sense of division is being fueled by the social networks. Echo chambers are a real issue. The amount of information available to us at any one time to process is too great. So we are selective in which sources we pay attention to. The problem is we tend to select sources that reinforce our existing beliefs, rather than those that challenge them. I am guilty of this, reading only papers that I largely agree with. This creates echo chambers, where groups become increasingly isolated and insular, refusing to listen to the other side.

When you have flame wars and echo chambers, fake news can flourish. Mainstream news has always been selective depending on it’s agenda, but at least it is grounded in some kind of reality. Fake news is simply not grounded in facts.  The sharing of these stories is confirmation bias at it’s most obvious. When opinions are based on choosing a side, rather than facts, people are more inclined to believe stories that meet their agenda. It’s not that all skepticism breaks down, it’s just that people chose stories that make sense to them.  This is how we have ended up in the situation where fake news is distributed freely, without any fact checking. Instead, blind fury leads people to share stories that make them angry, rather than stories that are accurate and boring. This sharing of fake news only helps to increases the effect of the echo chamber.

This influx of fake news is nothing new. It has been around since the start of the internet. The constant editing of Wikipedia shows the battle to keep things rational. Because the internet started as profoundly democratic, with everyone able to have a say, it means everyone’s opinion gets elevated almost to the status of fact. Recently though, with the rise of social media, facts have mattered less and opinions have won out. Fake news has increased in popularity because it incites emotional reactions based on the tribe you chose. It’s clickbait. The jury is still out whether such fake news swung the election in the USA and it likely had little impact on the Brexit vote, but it still has real world impacts. In November, a man walked into a pizza shop in Washington, DC and fired shots, based on an online conspiracy that had no relation to actual events.  Thankfully, no one was harmed. However, it is scary to see the internet having direct implications on the real world, encouraging violence  Fake news has changed people’s beliefs so far they are willing to take extreme action. The flame war has been taken to the streets.

In this environment where opinions are valued more than facts, it is little wonder that Oxford Dictionaries named the word of the year as ‘post-truth‘. The amount of information at our fingertips is staggering. I can look up any information within a couple of minutes, whilst I am on the go. It’s such a rapid change in our understanding of the world that it becomes overwhelming. Post-truth is a handy neologism to describe this world, where how you feel about an event matters more than the event itself. It is also deeply worrying that as a society we have rejected facts and instead focused on gut feelings, as it is no way to make major decisions. Michael Gove, who was hugely influential on the leave campaign for Brexit, said that people have”had enough of experts.” So now Britain faces an uncertain future outside of the EU because of an instinctive reaction, instead of listening to economists and experts who might actually know what they are talking about.

I feel this year was notable for being the first time the internet has controlled public opinion and influenced debate to such an extent. We need to have a look at the quality of information we are sharing online and need to start trusting in facts once again. 2017 is undoubtedly going to be worse, so we need to be skeptical about the information presented to us. Neurologica has a handy list of questions to ask when presented with any source. The internet has matured to the stage where everyone is using is, so we need to demand more of it. It’s not just a case of being confined to forums now. It’s the future discourse of the world.

Let me know what you think