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A Force for Good?

I recently read an article in the New Zealand Herald which claimed that the web (and by extension the internet as a whole) is a force for good rather than evil. Plenty of people disagree with this conclusion in various ways: they might cite the decline of traditional media, the alleged shallowness of the web, or the decreased real social interaction which has been subsumed by on-line social sites. So who is right?

Like everything else (and I really do mean everything because nothing is all good or all bad) there are good and bad aspects of the internet. One of the more obvious attributes of the web is its ability to let anyone post material. This is good because people with alternative ideas can get information out there but it’s bad for exactly the same reason. There are two types of alternative ideas: good ones and bad ones.

That was a rather fatuous answer so maybe I should clarify it. There is information being spread on the internet which isn’t politically acceptable or is being suppressed by powerful organisations (including governments) or is so new that it hasn’t made it into other media yet. This is good. Then there is information which is deliberately misleading or proven to be wrong beyond reasonable doubt. This is bad.

For example, Wikileaks has distributed a lot of information which has revealed what’s really happening behind the scenes of international events such as the so-called war on terror. This is information that the voting public should know about and it would be impossible to distribute widely without the internet. New information on any topic imaginable is distributed every day on web sites. NASA uses Twitter to give real-time updates on its missions. Email is an incredibly efficient way to carry out discussions over longer time periods. Most people would agree that this is all good.

But look in the wrong places and you can be terribly misinformed as well. In fact there are millions of sites dedicated to misinformation. If you want to get a very convincing (but essentially untrue) reason to reject global warming you will have no trouble finding it on the internet. If you want to find proof of alien visitation, or the efficacy of homeopathy, or the truth of the Christian creation myth, or how the US government were responsible for 9/11 you will find it in many places. Most people would agree that is bad.

Actually some would say it is good but only for the myth they want to believe. For example I know someone who would ridicule the alien abduction sites but totally accept the global warming denial sites without question. And I know another who thinks global warming denial is just silly rejection of the truth but still believes what he sees on creationist sites. Huh? Do these people not see the inconsistency here?

Actually, to be fair, it can be hard to tell truth from fiction some times. Many of the pseudoscientific sites I mentioned above look quite convincing. A lot of the creationist material looks professional and cites its sources, for example. You have to look more closely and see the scientific papers cited actually don’t support the conclusions on the site to realise it’s all a facade. But that does take extra time and a certain amount of expertise in reading scientific material so it’s not surprising that many people are fooled.

So clearly the designers of those types of sites are using the web for evil purposes. Actually even that’s not necessarily true because I think a lot of them believe they genuinely are doing the right thing even when they must know they are being deceptive. Maybe the end justifies the means for them.

In a perfect world the internet would be a place where all ideas could be presented and debated in a reasoned way. The creationist sites would allow feedback so that there errors could be corrected (I always find it interesting that atheist and science sites usually allow feedback but creationism sites rarely do – maybe they have something to hide). And internet users would have enough skills to look at the varying opinions and the contradictory facts and come to reasonable conclusions about what’s most likely to be true.

Unfortunately human nature more or less guarantees that will never happen. Most people will visit the sites which tell them what they want to hear and will ignore the rest. Of course that behaviour can occur through more traditional information sources such as books and other old media as well but the internet does make it a lot easier.

So it seems that the internet does have a dark side. It’s quite likely that the increasing divisions between political, religious, and social beliefs is significantly because of the polarising nature of many internet information sources.

Give people a great tool like the internet and just like everything else they will misuse it. But like the famous line says “the truth is out there”. People just have to get a lot better at finding it and, more importantly, they need to value the hard truth more than convenient myths.

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