When it was born, the internet promised to revolutionize personal communication. It did that. But it now also threatens our republic.
I remember way back in 1995 I took a nontraditional local college class on “the Internet,” then a curious new tech phenomenon emerging from the womb in barely post-fetal form.
I had no idea then that this seemingly miraculous invention would become as exponentially huge—and potentially dangerous to the health of Americans and our republic—as it has.
Keep in mind that, at the time, “E-mail”—“electronic mail”—wasn’t yet a universal global habit or even an unhyphenated word. Quaintly, we still wrote letters then.
‘This is going to be big’
But, still, I sensed that this new-fangled technology was going to be big, especially for journalists like me always hungry for heretofore tediously gathered information and explanatory context about news stories we were working on. The internet promised to literally open up the world’s information to the click of a computer key.
Up to that time, we had to often manually hunt down information in public records at “cop shops” (police stations) or government offices, in libraries or from personal news sources, or from newspapers and magazines. Person-to-person communication was either in person, via landline telephone or by “fax.” Gaining access to sources was inevitably inconvenient, unreliable, maddeningly hit-and-miss or altogether unavailable. Busy signals, no answer, and no reply were the norm.
My Internet-course instructors—it was a team-teaching class—scoffed at the then even-more-primitive-but-far-easier-to-use “World Wide Web,” which was also bobbing to the surface of American consciousness in the mid-’90s.
Our teachers preferred the far-more-complicated-and-devilishly-user-unfriendly Internet (even though the term “user-friendly” wasn’t yet a thing). They pointedly indoctrinated us “Net” babies in the idea that the easy-as-pie WWW was basically a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” byway for lazy losers and other defectives.
We babies, of course, much preferred the easier path, as people do. By far.
Internet danger a modern manifestation
So that was then and this is now. Today, the internet is the World Wide Web, and this marvel of modern technology has revealed its amazing capacities for eye-popping progress as well as massive, unprecedented human and political harm.
The internet today is so ubiquitous as to be lower-cased, like xerox, and it’s also the nervous parent of a very erratic, often criminally delinquent, offspring: social media.
This internet iteration of social media is a dense thicket of global “virtual” sites where people the world over can communicate instantaneously and digitally in text and imagery with their finite circle of friends, family and co-workers—as well as millions if not billions of strangers if they’re celebrities or what they have to say “goes viral” (proves wildly popular).
What makes this relatively new phenomenon so popular—and far too often unhealthily addictive, experts warn—is its speed, immediacy and breadth. Whereas people used to communicate one person at a time by letter, often taking weeks to complete a dialogue, human beings today can not only instantly connect with everyone they know, virtually everywhere, but also interconnect. Social media is the ultimate global “information superhighway” for intercommunication.
Social media titans want people in silos
What makes the internet also a uniquely dangerous communications platform is its intended ability to corral special-interest groups—such as aggrieved, conspiracy-enthralled conservative Republicans—into political silos that become echo chambers for partisan ideology that is commonly (if not usually) false and inflammatory.
Social media titans’ want their users in self-interest silos where they tend to spend more time consuming content—and the more time people stay on sites, the more money platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter make. As usual, it’s all about the money, the clicks.
Unfortunately, the super-focus on silo-ing has created a huge army of disaffected, distressed, and incensed partisans, especially on the hard right of America’s culture wars.
And these angry zealots, believing only what they absorb in their silos, inevitably strike out at enemies anonymously and brutally online. So victims are hard-pressed to defend themselves, not knowing who their ruthless assailants are and therefore unable to generally hold them to account.
If you think this is hyperbole, read OnlySky essayist Hemant Mehta’s Aug. 18 piece on how nasty online attacks and threats forced a North Dakota school board to rescind an earlier decision to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because it’s “under God” phrase was religiously noninclusive.
Online silos also cement misinformation among tribal members.
For example: the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former president Donald Trump. It wasn’t. Yet, thanks to social media (amplified by right-wing news media), poll after poll show that some 70 percent of Republicans still believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. He wasn’t. It’s a fact.
We can “thank” the internet, specifically social media, and Trump-slavish right-wing media (Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, et al.) for trapping like-minded white nationalist GOP zealots in a virulent, combative, self-vindicating online cave.
Aggrieved cyber thugs make internet lethal
Unfortunately, these cave-dwellers go out and infect and affect others, most disturbingly in blizzards of personal online attacks and, increasingly, death threats against imagined enemies of MAGA world.
The existential problem for our democracy is that these ad hominem attacks and mortal threats, as I noted, are very, very hard to counter in law that has not kept up with the development of ever-more-sophisticated online technology—and ever-more-virulent and polarized American politics and culture wars.
In the meantime, Americans remain extremely vulnerable to online assault, as they have for decades.
One case in point was reported in a 2014 article in The Atlantic magazine about a woman who was assaulted online by a man—she had dated him a couple of times then moved on—who sent her a video of himself masturbating after she didn’t respond to a previous full-frontal nude picture of himself he sent.
The victim, understandably, said it felt like a “threat.”
The Atlantic piece—”What the Law Can (and Can’t) Do About Online Harassment”—noted:
“Unwanted sexual contact online—it’s something we take seriously,” said Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. The U.S. Department of Justice statistics suggest that 850,000 American adults—mostly women—are targets of cyberstalking each year, and 40 percent of women have experienced dating violence delivered electronically. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found 40 percent of adult internet users have experienced harassment online, with young women enduring particularly severe forms of it.”
Laws haven’t kept up with internet dangers
But, due to existing laws and the legal system’s grinding slowness, it’s extremely difficult and expensive for victims to find justice. Especially if their perpetrators are anonymous—and even if they are familiar but claim free-speech rights.
While such unwanted violations still occur online, the internet assaults getting the most attention these days are from distressed right-wing Trumpists. Lately they have unleashed an unprecedented tsunami of online threats against FBI agents and their families after an agency team executed a legal search warrant of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort home.
Even though the agents found and confiscated a trove of highly classified documents illegally stored at Mar-a-lago, Trump supporters (including GOP members of Congress) immediately began aggressively attacking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the FBI agents he authorized to conduct the search—even publicly posting their names. Online death threats followed.
How to combat it?
It’s an international problem. The BBC (Brtitish Broadcasting Corp.) in an early 2021 online article wrote:
People are suggesting social media platforms should make their users sign in with formal identification such as a driving licence or passport to make it easier for the police to identify people who commit hate crimes and also discourage people from posting abuse in the first place.
However, there are fears that this would be giving social media companies too much personal data and could also pose a threat to activists, whistleblowers (who are people that reveal information about bad things people or companies have done) and persecuted minorities who need to protect their identity online.
Policing the internet?
That’s the rub: how to best protect free speech, privacy, and current and potential victims. Simultaneously.
In the United Kingdom the online aggressors are so-called “football [soccer] hooligans”; in the U.S. it’s largely right-wing agitators. Both are hard to hold accountable under current cultural norms and existing laws.
“We would not accept this harmful anonymous abuse anywhere else in our lives,” Labor Party Member of Parliament Margaret Hodge told the BBC. “So social media should not be any different.”
As it reasonably should not be in the United States, another democratic bastion of free speech and privacy rights.
The U.S. Chief Information Officers Council (CIOC) on its website stresses:
[S]ocial media is a double-edged sword, for all the good we intend to accomplish, social media is also an adversary breeding ground for subverting social media use for their illicit gain.
The trick will be sharpening the former while dulling the latter.
Good luck with that, considering 86% of internet users seek anonymity by removing or masking their online footprints.
Without effective, enforceable new laws, curbing online abusers will always be an uphill battle.
The 2014 article in The Atlantic cited earlier was prescient. Things haven’t much changed in the fight against cyber crime, especially toward women but also for any victim, as this passage illustrates:
Right now, there are a handful of ways victims can address their attackers through the legal system, both civilly and criminally. Unfortunately, many of them are costly and invasive, and combined with a lack of education and precedent, these channels don’t always offer the justice people are seeking. The law is notoriously slow to adapt to technology, but legal scholars say that if done right, the law can be used as a tool to stop this behavior.
We’re still waiting on the lawmakers.