You go to a billion tech and media conferences. The underlying theme from the experts is basically this: “We’re going through a lot of change. But things are getting better and better.”
Apparently, some of your peers are going to different conferences. As far as using the Internet for enlightenment, discussion are general uplift is concerned, a sizable number of qualified experts sound downright depressed about the tone, the substance and the trolls of the Internet.
The Elon University Imagining and Internet Center along with Pew Internet, Science & Technology Center asked them: “ In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls and an overall tone of griping and disgust?”
More than 80%--more than 80%!!--said they fear “uncivil and manipulative behaviors” will stay as they are or get worse by 2026. Only 19% expect things will improve.
This canvassing of attitudes was undertaken between July 1 and August 12 last year, before incessant “fake news” and political hacking stories took hold. It elicited responses from 1,537 “technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners, and government leaders.” This is, in essence, a sampling of people the surveyors had determined are smart and influential cookies.
Here’s are some highlights of their low opinions, as provided by Pew/Elon’s report:
Things will stay bad because to troll is human.
Anonymity abets bad behavior.
Inequities are motivating at least some of the inflammatory dialogue.
The growing scale and complexity of Internet discourse makes uncivil discourse difficult to overcome.
Things will stay bad because tangible and intangible economic and political incentives support uncivil behaviors.
Hate, anxiety and anger drive up participation, which equals profits and power.
Technology companies have little incentive to rein in uncivil discourse. Traditional news organizations - which used to help shape discussions for the common good - have shrunk in importance.
Terrorists and other political actors are benefiting from the weaponization of online narratives, implementing human- and bot-based misinformation and persuasion tactics.
Things will get better because technical and human solutions will arise to detect and filter inappropriate behaviors.
Due to the filtering and moderation required to deal with uncivil discourse, online worlds will splinter into segmented, controlled social zones and free-for-all zones.
There will be partitioning, exclusion, and division of online outlets, social platforms and open spaces.
Trolls and other uncivil actors will fight back, innovating around any barriers they face.
Some 'solutions' to uncivil behavior could further change the nature of the Internet.
Pervasive surveillance will become more prevalent.
Dealing with hostile behavior and addressing violence and hate speech will become the responsibility of the state instead of the platform or service providers.
Polarization will occur due to the compartmentalization of ideologies.
Increased monitoring, regulation and enforcement will shape content to such an extent that the public will not gain access to important information and possibly lose free speech.
Quite a list.
I don’t disagree with most of those comments, taken one by one. Put them all together,though, and it adds up to an extraordinarily bleak analysis of the impact of the media in the next decade. Broken down into component parts, the conclusions have four themes, the academics have decided:
1) Things will stay bad because trolling is human nature and because the Internet’s anonymity and its enormous size abets hateful behavior;
2) Things will get worse because “hate, anxiety, anger” lead to tangible political and economic rewards;
3) Things will get better because artificial intelligence tools will detect inappropriate behavior and the Internet will separate into “controlled social zones" but trolls will penetrate that;
4) Governments and agencies will increase surveillance of citizens, which will limit speech and polarize factions and stifle debate.
There’s a lot in this report. I can’t honestly say I’ve read all the pieces Pew and Elon have provided. But I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending. A thoughtful appraisal by Adrienne Lafrance on Atlantic.com sums up one important point: “The uncomfortable truth is that humans like trolling. It’s easy for people to stay anonymous while they harass, pester and bully other people online—and it’s hard for platforms to design systems to stop them.”