When US President Barack Obama was sworn in in 2009, I watched it from Spain where I was living at the time. I sat in Barcelona that evening, watching the ceremony live on Facebook and reading people’s reactions in real time.
Everyone was experiencing the moment firsthand with each other. It didn’t matter if we were in Asia, America or Europe, the Internet had brought us together and made the moment feel like we were there – because we were. The Internet seemed like a bastion of freedom and hope.
Fast forward 10 years and the Internet is now an open faeces-filled pit of bad human behaviour. A place that encourages and stokes the worst of our instincts.
It’s a place that has largely been responsible for the phenomena of “fake news”, making fringe conspiracy theories seem valid, radicalising the lonely and alienated into even more extreme views with sometimes grave real world actions.
It’s like we’re done seeing the good we can do with it, and human nature – as it always does – has decided to see how we can take this out for a spin and push it until it’s awful.
I love the Internet. I love that I have access to literally all the data ever. It’s an incredible resource, but for the most part I stay out of the comments. I tell myself if I read them in any tweet or on Facebook, I’ll go blind because the idiocy of the views there will likely make me gouge my eyes.
So, my solution is to not deal with it. Mostly. Which really isn’t a solution for anything.
Then I watched a Ted Talk by Andrew Marantz, who spent three years going to Internet trolls (as he calls them). He actually went to visit the people behind the caustic memes preaching hate, fake news and flat Earth lunacy, and came to some incredible takeaways we should all think about when navigating the Internet.
He also had tips on how to handle and counter trolls. The first thing, perhaps not so shocking, is that he found most of these creators of hate messages and conspiracy theories don’t really believe what they spout. Or at least they may have not believed it at first.
Many of them are intelligent, but looking for online validation. Unable to get this in any other form, they turn to posting inflammatory comments for the attention. It’s the Internet version of shouting "The aliens are coming" in the street, except you ignore and laugh at that person.
But when that person types the same ridiculousness in bold over an ironic photo – people start to listen. And when people pay attention, just like a four-year-old pushing glasses off a table and emboldened by an irresponsible laughing uncle, that child will do it again. And again. And again.
After repeating this nonsense over and over, the trolls really started to believe their bull. And this is our Internet meme factory, our source of dumb opinions that are evermore being used to form people’s actual world views.
Morantz said it was easy to think, these people have their opinions and we have ours. Free speech is free, but some things – spouting hatred like white supremacy, spouting idiocy like flat Earthers – just holds us up as a species, as a society, and as a world.
To combat it, Morantz has some advice. For a start, be sceptical. Check your news sources with other news sources. Find a mainstream media company or news agency you trust.
I always tell North Americans: Don’t just check the news coming out from your continent. Read what the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNA are saying about the same item. These foreign services have little reason to lie to a populace halfway around the world.
Morantz also made a distinction between good sceptical and what he calls stupid sceptical or knee-jerk contrarianism, which is opposing conventional logic just because it’s conventional. Flat Earthers are a great example.
The last piece of advice Morantz had was something we all can do to correct Internet misinformation and idiocy. The trolls involved in spreading lies do it because they get clicks. Those clicks spread their content like a virus across the platforms.
But we can do the same. Spread credible news, good news, puppy videos – although puppies don't need any help.
So get out there and share an article that actually informs because it’s accurate and true. Share an uplifting story instead of a crummy one. Morantz is right that we can change the algorithms if enough of us do it.
We can make it more advantageous to spread real information and decency. Then, maybe we can return to an Internet that instead of dividing and filling us with hate informs and unites us.