Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton said this week that we should think about shutting down parts of the Internet to stop terrorist groups from inspiring and recruiting followers in distant lands. Mr. Trump even suggested an expert who’d be perfect for the job: “We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening, and we have to talk to them — maybe, in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way,” he said on Monday in South Carolina.
Many online responded to Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton with jeers, pointing out both constitutional and technical limits to their plans. Mr. Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who now spends much of his time on philanthropy, has as much power to close down the Internet as he does to fix Mr. Trump’s hair.
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Yet I had a different reaction to Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton’s fantasy of a world in which you could just shut down parts of the Internet that you didn’t like: Sure, it’s impossible, but just imagine if we could do it, just for a bit. Wouldn’t it have been kind of a pleasant dream world, in these overheated last few weeks, to have lived free of social media?
Credit Stuart Goldenberg
Hear me out. If you’ve logged on to Twitter and Facebook in the waning weeks of 2015, you’ve surely noticed that the Internet now seems to be on constant boil. Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11. The Islamic State’s use of the Internet is perhaps only the most dangerous manifestation of what, this year, became an inescapable fact of online life: The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible.
“The academic in me says that discourse norms have shifted,” said Susan Benesch, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the director of the Dangerous Speech Project, an effort to study speech that leads to violence. “It’s become so common to figuratively walk through garbage and violent imagery online that people have accepted it in a way. And it’s become so noisy that you have to shout more loudly, and more shockingly, to be heard.”
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You might argue that the angst online is merely a reflection of the news. Terrorism, intractable warfare, mass shootings, a hyperpartisan presidential race, police brutality, institutional racism and the protests over it have dominated the headlines. It’s only natural that the Internet would get a little out of control over that barrage.
But there’s also a way in which social networks seem to be feeding a cycle of action and reaction. In just about every news event, the Internet’s reaction to the situation becomes a follow-on part of the story, so that much of the media establishment becomes trapped in escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.
“Presidential elections have always been pretty nasty, but these days the mudslinging is omnipresent in a way that’s never been the case before,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of literary studies and writing at Mercer University, who is the author of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a study of online “trolling.” “When Donald Trump says something that I would consider insane, it’s not just that it gets reported on by one or two or three outlets, but it becomes this wave of iterative content on top of content on top of content in your feed, taking over everything you see.”
The spiraling feedback loop is exhausting and rarely illuminating. The news brims with instantly produced “hot takes” and a raft of fact-free assertions. Everyone — yours truly included — is always on guard for the next opportunity to meme-ify outrage: What crazy thing did Trump/Obama/The New York Times/The New York Post/Rush Limbaugh/etc. say now, and what clever quip can you fit into a tweet to quickly begin collecting likes?
There is little room for indulging nuance, complexity, or flirting with the middle ground. In every issue, you are either with one aggrieved group or the other, and the more stridently you can express your disdain — short of hurling profanities at the president on TV, which will earn you a brief suspension — the better reaction you’ll get.
Bill Gates being introduced at Microsoft’s annual shareholders’ meeting last week in Bellevue, Wash. Credit Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
You don’t have to look far beyond the past week or two to find examples of this dynamic. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced they were giving away about $45 billion to celebrate the birth of their daughter. Within 10 minutes, Twitter erupted in skepticism over their motives. In a couple of hours after that, there were pro- and anti- pieces across the blogs, produced, apparently, by people who’d previously been moonlighting as experts in philanthropy. Not a lot of it was instructive; I spoke to several philanthropy experts who told me it was too early to pass judgment on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. But nothing is too early for the Internet.
And this is just a tepid example. More explosive news sets off more extreme reactions. When Erick Erickson, the right-wing commentator, saw that The New York Times had published a rare front-page editorial arguing for gun control last week, he didn’t bother to write a point-by-point rebuttal. He just got a paper, shot a bunch of holes in it, and posted the photo on Twitter. That’s enough to pass for valuable discussion on the Internet in 2015.
The Internet wasn’t supposed to be this ugly. In its earliest days its pioneers harbored grand ideas about the web’s expanding our democratic discourse.
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” wrote John Perry Barlow, the Internet freedom activist and former Grateful Dead lyricist, in his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which took the form of a letter to the governments of the old “industrial world.” He concluded with a hopeful idea: that the new online world would be “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
In an article published in The Times last week, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, noted that some of Mr. Barlow’s grand ideas have been realized. The Internet has arguably fostered education, democracy and economic prosperity in many parts of the world.
But nearly 20 years after Mr. Barlow’s declaration, it’s obvious the effect that the Internet has had on the world’s discourse has been more mixed. “Reading Barlow’s declaration now is like reading some 19th-century romantic manifesto,” said Ms. Benesch, of Harvard. “It makes the mistaken assumption that with greater capacity to communicate and to reach people automatically comes a better, nicer, kinder communication.”
This year, more than ever, we learned that wasn’t true. The Internet can make how we talk to one another better or worse. And for now, and maybe for the foreseeable future, we’re leaning toward worse.
By the way, following Mr. Trump’s suggestion, I reached out to a representative for Mr. Gates to see if he’d be willing to help close parts of the Internet. Mr. Gates declined to comment. Sorry, Donald: We’re on our own.