Remember how great the Internet was going to be?
It was going to unleash the collective wisdom of humanity. People were going to share ideas with people who they never would have encountered otherwise. Old ideas were to be challenged and tossed out if found wanting. All this sharing was going to make it easier for us to realize just how much we have in common with each other.
Unfortunately, the Internet just proved that crazy trumps wisdom, and facts fall in the face of lies.
The promise of all the good the Internet could do was there from the start. It was created by scientists as a way to make it easier to share information. It was assumed there was a way to tell good data from bad data. The more people who saw and assessed something, the more likely it was that flaws and mistakes would be discovered and corrected. That was the way it was supposed to work.
That can and does happen, but many people failed to account for the power of irrationality.
Consider the case of Gene Rosen, who sheltered and comforted six children that survived the Newtown, Conn., massacre. This hero is now the target of Sandy Hook "truthers," who think the shooting was a government conspiracy. Rosen and others have received phone calls and emails accusing them of somehow playing a part in an event the government supposedly manufactured for nefarious reasons. The same thing happened to survivors of the Aurora, Colo., shootings.
Then there’s the ongoing and remarkably successful effort funded by oil companies to discredit climate change despite overwhelming scientific proof.
"All the evidence isn’t in yet," people say. No, but most of it is and it has been for a while. I covered the issue back in the early '90s, and not much doubt existed about it even then.
There are vaccines that cause autism; Obama is a Muslim; 9/11 was a conspiracy; the holocaust was a hoax; creationism–sorry, intelligent design–is a scientifically valid argument. (That one is so powerful it is being used in text books in public schools.) I could go on and on.
Scientific proof hasn’t even had much of an impact on the sale of homeopathic "medicines." Nor has it stopped the rebirth of the Flat Earth Society, which had been dormant for many years but sprung back to life in 2009.
The initial idealism around the Internet forgot two truths.
First, most people don’t want their ideas challenged. They make friends with people who agree with them and find sources of information that support what they already believe. Idealistic me still believes a lot of these people aren’t irrational. They will at the very least consider changing their minds if they encounter contrary facts, but they won’t go out of their way to find them.
The second thing that was forgotten is the persistence and power of crazy–especially when it has company. And the Web made it easier for crazy people to find each other. Today ideas that once would have been laughed out of existence–Obama birthers, for example–in some cases get treated as if they’re reasonable because the people who perpetuate them can say, "Look at how many people agree with us." The plural of anecdote isn't data and sadly that doesn't matter in the least.
Sorry Internet. Humanity failed you.