The internet was to ring in a new age. Once characterized by information, objectivity and an unprecedented access to any and all knowledge, it has degenerated into a cesspool of half-truths, misinformation, propaganda and a safe haven of conformation bias and an outright rejection of reality. To imagine what could have been is not only deeply saddening but downright heartbreaking. The internet was to be the harbinger of truth instead but, it has only further propagated disinformation.
News is arguably the arena most damaged by the internet. Because of the absurd speed in which knowledge is spread, online media organizations have been placed in a competition of who can break each story first. It no longer matters if the reporting is objective or even based in fact, as long as it is first. This sprint has in turn led to the genesis of highly politicized opinion websites that masquerade as legitimate news platforms. In the 20th century media learned sex sells and, accordingly, capitalized upon it.
In the twenty-first, outlets such as the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vox learned blind outrage sells even better. If you can’t be the first to break a story, you still need to attract clicks in order to stay in business. Hyper-politicization and sensationalism were the answers to this. Each story is draped in identity politics, partisanship and outrage to garner clicks. The resulting “news” is laden with falsehoods, fallacies and outright lies. These tactics have unfortunately been successful, so much so that even once semi-respected outlets such as CNN and USA Today have begun to utilize many of the same lazy ploys that are increasingly reminiscent of yellow journalism. It is understandable why so many news outlets participate in this race to the bottom. They are companies and need to maintain a profit to exist. However, by doing so, they’ve irreparably eroded their positions as the gatekeepers of information.
Sadly, conventional media’s continually deteriorating position has also given rise to increasingly sinister and subversive alternative media outlets, such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars. For those of you fortunate enough to never have come across Jones or his platform, Alex Jones is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and conman who sells half-truths for a living. That may sound funny but it becomes increasingly concerning when you learn that for a period of about a year, Jones was a trusted confidant of our current president. So much so that InfoWars was the only media outlet to receive his inauguration speech prior to his swearing in. When he’s not aiding the president, Jones spends most of the time rambling on about the new world order, chemicals in the water and Obama. Despite the sheer, overwhelming absurdity that is Jones and InfoWars they still maintain a bafflingly large following, bringing in tens of millions of views every month.
Like any competent conman or cult leader, Jones instills his followers with a chronic mistrust of all institutions but himself. He preaches that InfoWars alone can offer salvation from globalism and the new world order all while selling a slew of snake oil and other pseudo-scientific remedies that baselessly promise health and vitality when, in reality, mostly just contain unregulated ‘supplements.’ The internet has allowed Jones and others like him to reach an innumerable amount of people. This coupled with the publics’ dwindling trust of traditional media has created the perfect storm of ignorance and disinformation. Entire swaths of the populous have completely lost the desire or ability to discern between objective reporting, sensationalized garbage, propaganda and outright frauds such as Jones. The American public neither cares nor has the time to sift through the insane amount of garbage online. Due to this the problem is only going to fester and worsen as people like Jones continue to spring up and indoctrinate more and more people into their bizarre ideologies and scams.
The internet has also allowed groups of likeminded individuals to collectively reject reality in ways previously only thought possible through psychosis. By squirreling themselves away in echo chambers brimming with confirmation bias, various groups from every walk of life and every corner of the political spectrum have crafted fanciful worlds so far removed from reality they seem ripped from some macabre dark comedy. These moronic crevices of the internet are home to some of the most gleefully ignorant people to ever voice their opinions. Groups like the Antivaxxer movement proudly reject vaccines, an invention responsible for saving more human lives than anything else in history, out of fears they cause Autism and other diseases. Thanks to their proud ignorance, preventable diseases such as mumps and whooping cough are once again rearing their ugly heads. Killing hundreds and destroying the herd immunity humanity has built over the last century. Equally reprehensible movements such as Health at Every Size promote obesity as a consequence of free lifestyle instead of the life-threatening medical condition that it is. Even more disturbing still is the bug chasing community, a group of people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of HIV and AIDS. I wish I was making this up. The internet is filled with abominable groups such as these. Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, Flat Earthers and similarly disingenuous groups have been able to flourish in the open forum that is the internet.
This article should not be misconstrued as a cry to censor the internet or to ban these groups. I fully believe the internet should be an open forum, where anything and everything goes as long as it is reasonably within the confines of the law. Nonetheless, I also believe that the current state of the internet is proof that we as a people were not ready for it. At this current time, the population of America and the world at large is not nearly skilled enough in critical thinking to distinguish what is true and substantiated and what is not. We all too easily look to confirm our preexisting suspicions and beliefs and happily inebriate ourselves on confirmation bias because for many of us it is easier than facing the objective reality of what is occurring.
To blame Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or vaccines, or George Soros or the right or the left for all the problems our world and society is currently facing is easy. It allows us to frame the world in a black and white, good vs evil scenario that grants us the ability to say, “we’re the good guys! we’re on the right side of history!” To critically examine our world through a lense of objectivity is tough, time consuming and often demoralizing. But it is necessary. In the coming years it will be increasingly important to introduce a curriculum into our education system that teaches the youth how to discern fact from opinion, how to find and evaluate sources, to look for biases and ulterior motives and to generally cope with the assault of information that they will have to live with their entire lives. The internet is the greatest tool for knowledge and learning mankind has ever created, but it can also just as easily be the greatest propagator of lies and disinformation to ever plague humanity. How the next generation is educated will be the deciding factor in this. Will they utilize the internet for the betterment of humanity or will they give into propaganda and the other shallow intoxicants the internet delivers with such ease?