The internet may well be the root cause of today's problems… but not in the way you think
May's scapegoat and Trump's Twitter rants are damaging society
Comment In a predictable but still shocking pronouncement, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has put much of the blame of recent terror attacks in London and Manchester on the internet and internet companies like Google and Facebook.
"We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed," she argued in a speech following the deaths of seven people in central London at the weekend. "Yet that is precisely what the internet – and the big companies that provide internet-based services – provide."
At the same time, US president Donald Trump used his preferred method of communication – Twitter – to post a series of messages about the attacks that have sparked widespread anger over their selfish and callous nature.
Trump argued that the attacks were evidence that his Muslim travel ban should be enforced in the US and then misquoted London's mayor Sadiq Khan to personally attack him – an extraordinary thing to do at a time of crisis.
Asked about Trump's attacks and insults on Khan, May repeatedly sidestepped the question and refused to criticize the American president.
To May, the internet represents everything wrong and dangerous in her world: it is a largely uncontrollable meeting place of people, many of whom disagree wildly with what she believes. Anything that she cannot control is dangerous.
Trump, on the other hand, is an agent of chaos. He does not fear people or ideas in the abstract – in fact, he thrives on the kind of misinformation and fact-flipping that the internet makes all too easy. Trump fears people only in person.
Inevitably, and correctly, many commentators have lined up to criticize both leaders over their views. The internet is no more to blame for terrorism than mobile phones were to blame for football hooligans (but it didn't stop politicians calling for a ban on them because they were being used to arrange fights).
May's critics have pointed out that she was responsible, as home secretary, for slashing the police force's numbers and budget – surely that was a greater contributor to problems than the fact that Facebook takes more than a day to take down an offensive video?
Others have pointed out that May's growing attacks on encryption – under the assumption that if the government can read everything people send it won't be blindsided by terrorist attacks – are similarly wrong-headed.
The internet is a convenient scapegoat, and it is not the root cause of our problems.
Except that's not entirely true.
With one hand...
Without the internet and its unusual ability to find people that are difficult to reach otherwise, it is debatable that May and Trump would be prime minister and president. Both leaders are manifestations of the very things they claim to fear.
The same instant, one-to-one, unfiltered communication that has turned ordinary people into individuals willing to commit atrocities has been a factor in the election of both leaders.
The same force that drives young men to become estranged from a society in which they were raised is present in the voting patterns of people that are not addressed by the "mainstream" media.
You stop listening to what you are told to think. You find likeminded individuals. They become your peer group. And when the larger world tells you that your thoughts are wrong, your group assures you that it is them that are wrong.
That sense of power in a joint belief is very fortifying; strong enough to expand beyond small groups into larger groups. And when those larger groups are focused on specific goals, it can become extremely effective.
There are large groups of people in the United States who believe a range of views that are clearly and obviously wrong: dinosaurs existed at the same time as Jesus; there is no such thing as climate change; people's sexuality is some kind of deity-imposed punishment; anyone should be allowed to buy a gun.
But the big, dangerous beliefs incorporate the ability to both hate and get revenge on other human beings. If you win, they lose.
Trump repeatedly said and did things that should have seen him kicked out of the presidential race before he even started. Despite being exposed over and over again as an immoral, inconsistent, vain, heartless liar, he went on to win the most powerful seat in the United States.
Every time he was attacked and didn't fall down, it was a punch in the face of those in power who couldn't get their way. You were winning. And they, for once, were losing.
Another campaign that was defined by its populism and lies is what propelled May to power: the decision by the UK to leave the European Union despite the clear and obvious logic in staying. The more politicians and media outlets railed against Brexit, the more voters saw the issue as an opportunity to give the powerful and the prevailing bloody noses.
Been here before
This behavior is nothing new in the broader arc of human history – the same process was behind many of the religious wars that have ravaged the human race throughout history.
And so it is with the young men that decide, against all reason and compassion, to kill their fellow citizens in cold blood thanks to a mix of messages – most of them wild distortions or calculated lies – that made them feel powerful.
Killing yourself in the name of a belief is obviously much more extreme than voting for a foolish economic policy or electing a wholly unqualified leader. But then when it comes to terrorism the whole point is that it only requires a very small number of people to have a big impact.
The co-creator of the internet as we know it today, Vint Cerf – the man who devised the protocols that make the spread of information so fast and simple – once famously observed: "The internet is a reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what we see. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society."
Cerf's mirror analogy is good – but it fails to properly account for human behavior. What we see in the mirror changes as our perception of ourselves changes. If told you look ugly, you will doubt your attractiveness while looking in the mirror. If you are angry, seeing your angry self in the mirror will only reinforce that state.
What the internet has done is remove the delay – the time it takes to stop acting impulsively and to be open to more calm and reasoned voices. It has also made it possible to listen to as many different voices – and to pick what those voices will say. You are free to reinforce your beliefs in a way that was never possible outside of tightly knit communities before.
So Theresa May may be right. In theory at least. If you remove those "safe spaces" you remove the ability for people to develop extreme positions. Except someone has to decide which spaces are allowed and which are not. And then someone else has to check on everyone's behavior. And that is the path to authoritarianism.
What is the solution? Well, the end of religious wars came about largely because of two things: greater personal and economic freedom and better education.
The people who voted for Donald Trump – at least the ones who shifted the election – are notable by the fact that they have less economic freedom. They feel constrained, put upon, made to feel less-than. And those in the position to do something about it did little or nothing about those people's situations for long stretches of time.
The same is largely true for Brexit. The "elites" outlined all the reasons not to leave Europe – and every one sounded like it would only benefit themselves. The manual laborer in Middlesbrough doesn't give a damn about the stock market.
Every time there is an atrocity, there is an effort to dig into what made someone become a public murderer. But that effort is never honest. There is a need to condemn. Explanation can very quickly feel like justification.
But here's a prediction: not one of the people who drove into, stabbed or blew up innocent people felt that they had much in the way of economic or personal freedom. And every one of them surrounded themselves with viewpoints that counteracted what mainstream society was saying. They were getting the messages, they just decided they were part of the problem.
The answer to wild voting patterns and destructive human behavior is not – nor has it ever been – to clamp down on people further. But that is the pattern that we have seen time and again in history because the dark forces that drive destructive behavior also empower those who promise to counteract it with even greater force.
Censoring social media, listening in to everyone's conversations and using the internet as a political scapegoat are very convenient solutions for someone who will never recognize that they are part of the problem.
And later this week, the UK will likely continue to reinforce that belief by voting Theresa May back in as prime minister. If she does make it back in, there will be a fair case to make that it was the internet to blame. ®