How the Internet is making us all extremists


For its short lifespan, the Internet has been accused of many things. It’s been charged with making people stupid. It’s been charged with shortening attention spans. It’s even been charged with making us lonelier.

And today, I’m going to charge it for making us all extremists. Yes, all of us.

Let’s be clear: extremism doesn’t begin with a pulled trigger. It ends there. Like any other action, extremist action is a symptom, or reflection, of a person’s thoughts, ideas, and choices. And all of our choices are influenced by our worldviews.

And we all have worldviews, which are, as you know, shaped by many things: our environment, families, teachers, friends, and culture.

And thus, our worldviews will give us all different perspectives. It shapes how we see the world, ourselves, and others. But more importantly, it shapes what we see as problems in our world. And, of course, most importantly, it will shape our ideal world, what we think the world should look like.

Generally, we call this broad subject religion and politics. And now we bring in the Internet.

Just a question. Supposing you’re bored with watching cat videos, and now you’d like to do something else on the Internet. What would you do?

Let me guess. I’d say that you’d probably do/read/watch something that

  1. You are interested in
  2. You agree with
  3. Affirms your beliefs
  4. Or all of the above
  5. Or, of course, the last option, which I almost wasn’t going to include: argue with strangers.

Very rarely do people actively search for articles and videos that would make them upset and angry. (Unless you’re a troll.) However, I do find people, always and every day, watching, reading, liking, and sharing things that they do agree with.

And there’s a problem with that.

If you only ever listen to things that you are interested in or agree with, you won’t really hear many differing opinions. The only thing that you’ll succeed in is affirming what you already know and believe. This, of course, inevitably causes some narrow-mindedness to worsen.

But that’s not a symptom that comes solely from the Internet. After all, the Internet isn’t the sole purveyor of information. If you only ever read books or newspapers that match your beliefs, then, well, you’ll get the same result even without the Internet. What, then, makes the Internet so dangerous?

Well, to put it in a single sentence, because of three things: its accessibility, its volume of (mis)information, and how unfiltered that information is.

You don’t need a PhD to know how accessible the Internet is. It’s everywhere. Chances are, you’re probably not reading this on a desktop computer. You’re probably on a phone. Or a laptop. Simply put, the Internet is always with us, and when you’re always with someone (or something) and you’re always spending time with them (or it), you will be influenced by them.

I don’t need to explain how much information the Internet has either. Let’s just stick with a lot. So if you’re looking for information to back up your beliefs, look no further, because the Internet will give you all the information you need on any particular subject until you’re drowning in it.

Of course, the Internet’s biggest problem (or freedom) is its inability to weed out lousy information. I’m not just talking about fake news. Sure, sometimes people concoct wonderful tales about this politician or that celebrity, but in the end, I think the most destructive aspect of the Internet is the unbridled scorn trolls people have for anyone who doesn’t share their views. They call them wrong, idiotic, evil, or all three. Sure, they might be accurate in their facts, but there are nicer ways to share information. The least effective forms of persuasion are condescension and scorn, and if you’re trying to convince someone of your point using those methods, the only thing you’d succeed in doing is alienating them.

And alienation, the feeling that your beliefs and your rights are being attacked, is the first divide between groups in society. And with our wonderful Internet always by our sides, those divides can and will grow, and eventually, those who used to be our friends and neighbours will become our enemies.

And at that point—where you so dislike a group of people so much that you cannot even hold a respectful conversation with them about their beliefs without lots of shouting down at them—that’s called extremism. Sure, you might never pull a trigger on them, but look at the news—that same hate has caused other people to pull it.

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