The internet is a major force for good in our society. It increases access to all sorts of knowledge and provides an outlet for content creators to be exposed to the wider world on platforms with reach that would never have been thought possible before it. When humanity’s free will is factored in, however, a vast majority of the time people will ultimately seek out things that they want to read or watch, and things that confirm what they believe in. This can lead to people mentally over-estimating the number of people in society who agree with them on any issue. Primary propagators of this behaviour include forums, as well as internet spaces as innocent-looking as your Facebook News Feed. Ultimately, this can have quite negative consequences for people, especially if they’re unaware of the effect of the content they’re digesting on the internet.
If you’re angry and disillusioned, chances are that someone on the internet has felt the exact same feelings that you have, and has made a page on the internet for it. Unapologetic pirate that hates nothing more that the RIAA and MPAA? There’s a news service online for you. Is a round earth really just a conspiracy made up by NASA? No problem, these guys really exist! Want to smash the state? Well, these guys might just be your new best buds. No matter how obscure or deranged the viewpoint is, more likely than not, there’s a community on-line where you’d fit right at home. Sure, there’s clubs in real life for strange things too, like speaking made up languages, or broadcasting on short wave radio, however, the internet provides a meeting place for people with less savoury interests. The veil of anonymity on internet has the ability to push the morally grey into the public view. Extremists on both side of the political spectrum will egg each other on, and may result in clashes being made public, with both side believing that they have the upper hand in public appeal, as we saw in last year’s United Patriots Front rallies and their sometimes violent clashes with opponents. When it most gets on my nerves, is when ultra-progressives from sites like tumblr go way over the top and start vitriolic campaigns, which may occasionally cross over into real life, about minor infractions against their world view. All in the name of ‘Social Justice’, of course. As a result of the echo-chamber-like nature of online communities, members of them may see themselves as having more public traction and influence than they do, which can result in bad outcomes in the on- and offline spaces.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m naturally biased. I think that all people are, but how much they accept this reality varies. As I look through my News Feed, of all the politically-related pages I’ve liked, there’s only about two that post articles and photos that I disagree with. Facebook has a very echo-chambery effect. Profiles are carefully curated and the onus is on the user to actively ‘like’ content that they want to see in their feeds. It’s very rare, I’d say, to see something that challenges your perceptions anywhere on your Facebook News Feed. The effect is heightened if you remove all your friends who have the misfortune of liking politicians that become the target of public ire (e.g. The campaign to remove your friends who like Donald Trump), which only amplifies the silence of anybody you disagree with. This echo-chamber type of website design is one of the major reasons I don’t use Reddit. I find that the up/down mentality only has the effect of silencing all opposition, while promoting a majority view – thus discouraging any discussion or opinions from outside the norm. The same thing happens in the Youtube comments, whereby all favourable comments are thumbed up, and vice versa.
So, what’s the effect of this hivemind mentality that is so prevalent on many spaces on the internet? The main effect is stifling of debate. When I look at the comments section on any article on the Guardian that comments on social issues, the comment section is invariably a pit of left-wing self-congratulatory ‘discussion’, or more like an agreement. Most websites of News Limited publications suffer from the same problem, except on the Right. So, where can you go on the internet if you want to see both sides textually biff it out? Well, unfortunately it’s your responsibility to find counter-views, as it’s not often that you’ll find both sides from one source on the internet, however, there are some, like the Conversation that endeavour to do their best in this regard. Another effect, is the potential for radicalisation of views to occur. If all you’re fed, media-wise all day is stories from one political view, your ideals will slowly start to conform to this view more and more. This can be seen in the unfortunate case of Elliot Rodger, whose misogyny was radicalised by consuming views from people in closed, misogynistic communities online. These sorts of communities have also caused a proliferation in pedophilic content and neo-nazi ideas online, as well as being recruiting grounds for terrorist groups like ISIS – as there is nobody in these communities who are actively against these ideas. This is why the hive-mind nature of the internet is so dangerous.
Grouping together is natural, it is human. The more easily accessible the internet is, the wider audience a non-mainstream view or collective will achieve. It’s imperative that you challenge your ideas, not just to be better informed, but also to be aware of reasons for and against a topic, and why people feel the way they do, and how much of the population thinks the same way. Do one thing each day that scares you – Think for yourself.