Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.
A few years ago, when my elderly father fell sick, we gave him an old iPhone. It was a godsend. Although he barely knew how to use a computer, on the simple mobile device, he found music from his youth, news and no end of useful information to keep his mind off his ailments. Only one thing troubled him. After delving into the world of Indian music on YouTube, he was shocked by what he read in the comments under the videos. More than once he asked me, both disturbed and incredulous: “Anyone can just post anything?”
In a sense, that is both the promise and peril of the internet distilled: Almost anyone can post almost anything. But the ills of how digital technology lowers barriers to publishing and broadcasting continue to be brought home in awful, tragic ways. False information targeting minority groups is disseminated so quickly, without any authority, that it has led to real violence in places such as Myanmar. In New Zealand, the brutal murder of 50 Muslims in Christchurch by a white supremacist – tied up in the toxicity of online subcultures of the alt-right, and in the very incentives of an attention-based medium itself – was broadcast on Facebook Live for all to see. And when more than 200 people were killed in co-ordinated bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, the government responded by banning Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber. Social media, once a helpful tool in terror attacks and emergency situations, is now being looked upon as a villain.
Sri Lanka isn’t alone in instituting sweeping social-media bans – in India, TikTok was shut down for allegedly contributing to child abuse and exploitation – all in response to the almost inevitable, difficult conversations around the role of the internet in these heinous acts of violence. Even tech giants such as Facebook and Microsoft, perhaps finally recognizing the enormity and seriousness of their social role, have taken the remarkable step of calling for the regulation of their own industry.
One thing is clear: The internet has both fostered and made visible a litany of hate once thought vanquished, from the kind of white supremacy that motivated the Christchurch shooting, to the misogyny behind the van attack in Toronto last year, to endless campaigns of bigotry and harassment aimed at women, queer and trans people, and minorities of all stripes. Add to this election interference, the potential for echo chambers and filter bubbles, digital distraction and the commonness of online acrimony, and it’s enough to wonder if we shouldn’t scrap the whole thing.
Buried at the centre of this whole conversation is one animating, enormous – and even hyperbolic – question: Is the internet actually worth it?
Unfortunately, viewing this issue through that kind of lens is unproductive. The query cuts to the core of an unhelpful dichotomy that emerges when the debate over technology’s role in society bubbles forth again: Either the tech is to blame, acting as a kind of corrupting influence; or it is in fact the underlying social problems that are the true cause, and tech merely the medium. But that kind of binary isn’t just distracting – it is the wrong way to think about both technology and our current social problems.
Here’s something we too often forget: The history of human life is, in fact, the history of technology. It is intrinsically what makes us human, not a thing distinct from it; the way we use and make tools is perhaps what sets our species apart above all else. From the invention of clothes to shelter to language itself, every basic unit of humanity is a form of technology.
But if technology is the thing that forms the base of life, then each major technological change is itself a major social change. Think about how the invention of writing fundamentally changed how humans remember, connect, build and think. Similarly, the rise of printing and widespread literacy in Europe had enormous ramifications for belief, governance and the structure of social life. The industrial age and its grand machinery fundamentally altered our relationship to the Earth.
The internet is another such transformation. The ability for almost anyone to publish, the persistence of an online identity, the emergence of digital networks – these are all significant social as well as technological changes. But they are not good or bad things in and of themselves, nor are they merely neutral. Rather, like all of technology, the internet is a set of conditions from which things emerge in particular ways. It affects, among other things, ideas about selfhood, social connection, community, the country and identity.
So our task is not to defend or condemn the internet; it is to understand how and why the web has played a part in the rise of so much hatred. One starting point: New data from Harvard suggest that an increase in hate is not due to more racism as a kind of “internal belief,” but is, more simply, due to people feeling more comfortable expressing it. That is: Rising racism appears to be coming from a combination of exposure online, and the internet’s capacity to collect and aggregate people who then in turn coalesce around particular ideas, and then have them reinforced by the groupthink of a community.
That pattern by which a technological medium and social change meet is repeated across the internet. The rise of feminism, for example, has prompted a backlash by those who feel their privileged position is being challenged; they connect with the similarly aggrieved, and what might have once been scattered or individual resentment instead forms into things such as the virulent men’s rights group known as the “incel” community linked to the Toronto van attack. The same basic structure can be seen in anti-immigration sentiment in North America and Europe, communal tension in India and southeast Asia, anti-trans agitation in Britain and no end of other forms of prejudice.
But while there is a kind of academic satisfaction in being accurate about how we speak about technology – that rather than some simplistic chicken-and-egg idea, we instead think of history and technology as being co-emergent – there is also a more fundamental and worrying undercurrent with real-world implications happening. Even in this dynamic of how the web aggregates people with bigoted beliefs, those beliefs both predated and survived the rise of the internet. If we live in a world that has seen a renewed rise of nativist, racist, sexist and broadly bigoted views, they appear to be returning because they are not so much fringe ideas as they are built into the structure of our societies.
Understanding how the internet helped push these views closer to the mainstream means understanding that those systems – white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity – weren’t so much vanquished as temporarily suppressed from public life. The visibility and community of the web forms an important cog in the engine of hatred, but just as it is important to understand the role of technology, it is also crucial to remember how a whole other slew of factors have helped reinvigorate bigotry – most obviously, politicians implicitly or explicitly appealing to nativists, racists and xenophobes.
The point is that the internet as a historical phenomenon is not some sort of force of evil making things worse – where excising it would actually lead to productive change. It’s more a kind of lens that both clarifies and then magnifies just how deeply racism and sexism run into society. Beyond complex or abstract arguments about the structure of ideologies, anyone who has ever been online knows this to be true: It is almost impossible to spend much time at all online without running into hate. And in removing the veneer of politeness and the risk of opprobrium, it is as if the web reveals not just the tenuousness of decorum or social norms, but the very structure of liberal democracies themselves.
Yet, if that is the case, then there is genuine cause for concern. There is something about the rise of extremist ideology online that appears to remain deeply resistant to both shame and attempts to push it back into the shadows. Racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic thought instead seems to calcify online, the dynamic of suppression paradoxically fortifying the existence of that which one wants to quash. Put another way: Hatred isn’t simply going away, even if the superstructure of the internet were to disappear. Hatred is a thing that has to be confronted and fought at every turn, even if we don’t know what the form of that contestation will look like.
This is the legacy of human history: Technological and social change are interlinked, simultaneous, co-dependent and defined by these kinds of clashes. In Europe, the spread of the printing press and its connections to religious reform, the emergence of the nation state, and the concept of individual rights didn’t simply elicit change: It was part of a network of factors that caused profound upheaval, conflict, war.
We perhaps sit at another such fulcrum, and solutions are not easy, and perhaps impossible. But to challenge it requires understanding that neither things called “the internet” or “society” are alone to blame. It is instead the conjoined fact of technology and the social, and any solutions have to treat those things as essentially one and the same – that we must attack both the rise of hatred online, and its social roots as part and parcel of the same phenomenon.
The internet is here to stay; the internet is us, and we are the internet. Asking whether it is worth it is like asking whether books were good because some contained bad ideas. The only thing left to ask in the light of the irreversible fact that hatred is rising once again: What will we do in response?