Does the Internet polarize and distort politics?

Are Internet trolls destroying society? Danny de Gracia interviews novelist D.M.J. Aurini on the future of the information age. Photo: Many contemporary protests have been stirred by information shared on the Internet. / AP Photo

HONOLULU, January 13, 2013 ― Getting tired of seeing endless political arguments on Facebook or flame matches in article comment threads? Those online arguments might just have a bigger impact than you think as a growing number of policymakers are beginning to wonder whether or not online trolls may be leading to an increased polarization of U.S. politics.

In today’s 24/7 connected lifestyle, current events and political policy proposals draw near-instant response from the Internet, often forcing elected leaders to place their emphasis on micro-constituent relations and instant responses to online criticism rather than deliberation and thoughtful analysis.

Wild rumors, gossip and conspiracy theories which in ages past would have seen limited distribution today virally spread online and have played a major role in shaping the modern consciousness and worldview. Some say this has led politics to become more partisan, reckless and extreme in its scope.

I interviewed the highly popular and bestselling futurist author D.M.J. Aurini for his take on the direction the Internet is taking Western civilization. Aurini shares with me that he believes the Internet has made it possible for our generation to be the most informed and educated people in the history of mankind, but it also carries with it the dark side of histrionics, cyber-bullying and irresponsible accusations. Aurini as a futurist believes that the Internet is directly changing us in ways that may be too quick for some to handle.

Danny de Gracia: Davis, during the last election one of the things that came up was the question “Is the Internet a joke.” In other words, has the Internet become less of an infosphere and more of a “troll-o-sphere”? We saw the election just draw out some incredible ideological vitriol and flame wars online. Whether it was Romney versus Obama or the Republican presidential primaries, all the trolls came out.

It really showed that the Internet in some ways was just becoming this crazy place where you do have good information but you also have these histrionic people out there. And we’re such a connected society that you can’t help but have that influence leak into the real world outside of the net. So what do you think?

D.M.J. Aurini: Well I think there’s really three things that you’re going to find on the Internet, aside from Flash videogames and that sort of stuff. The very first one is excellent, excellent solid information. For example, just about anyone can go online and get a history education or an arts experience. You name it, there’s a forum dedicated to it full of accurate information. It used to be that you had to walk down to the library and you had a limited selection of books and you had try and figure out what the best one was. We have the opportunity to be the most educated populace that has ever existed. It’s not like you need a public education.

And then there’s the other two aspects, and this is what the mainstream media is getting at – that there is a, I guess as you said the “troll-o-sphere” as well as the blogs, Facebook image macros with twenty words on them, Twitter where only simple thoughts less than a few hundred characters can be expressed – those are some of the downsides.

The thing is that the Internet gives everybody a soapbox, so a lot of the people on those soapboxes are going to be idiots. There are going to be people who could never get into the mainstream media. But you’re also going to have a lot of people that will get into the media, not because they’re erudite or they have something worth saying but because what they say rubs too many people the wrong way.

DDG: Right. Well you have a situation today where you have on one side the people that reject the Internet entirely and say it’s totally not authoritative. The classic, traditional intellectuals from like my undergraduate freshman days in 1997 who said the Internet is where you go to learn about UFOs and see Bigfoot evidence, it’s not for research or reliable information. There’s still holdovers who believe the Internet is completely to be rejected.

Then you have professional trolls who go out to inflame passions or as Solzhenitsyn said they are hasty critics and they … you wouldn’t think it would be a problem but it’s becoming a big problem because of the rhetoric. They’re messing up the system. They criticize everything, accuse everyone. How do you feel about that?

Aurini: Well they are a problem. But first let me rewind a second and talk about the “experts” who say that the internet is not an accurate source of information.

DDG: Mmm-hmm.

Aurini: You have academia with their professors and most people don’t know that the Ph.D. is a modern invention. We didn’t have Ph.D. throughout most of history, we had amateurs, you know, maybe they came from nobility, but amateurs nonetheless inventing all of the things, discovering science, writing books of philosophy, great new forms of art, plays. These people were not accredited. They did not have Ph.D. degrees and so certainly a modern university loves to trump things up and say, “Whoa, this guy’s a Ph.D., believe everything he says.” Yet it’s the blogosphere that’s also exposing a lot of the intellectual errors out there.

You know, you do have to write the blog sooner or later. You can’t spend the rest of your life in research or waiting to publish and get peer reviewed. You can write a blog and still have a strong moral commitment to be accurate.

Then of course, as you mention, there’s the professional troll. There’s these people that can’t – and this is my hypothesis – that there are people who can’t engage in creative synthesis so they do destructive things like leave hateful comments and show up to argue. A friend of mine, a fellow blogger Matt Forney recently put forth an argument to disable comments on blogs because of that reason that he doesn’t feel like arguing with 20 people standing on his soapbox.

DDG: Yeah, cause the purpose of the blog is for the author to share their ideas. It’s not supposed to be an online mosh pit.

Aurini: (Laughs) Yeah. Exactly, exactly. There’s creativity involved. It’s easy to tear down someone’s work but it’s very, very time consuming and hard to actually create something. Good critics – and for example, I’m including a whole bunch of Internet movie reviewers – put in a lot of effort. They actually have a creative approach. They have insightful critiques and it’s not just verbal scatology, it’s not just leaving snide comments.

On the Internet you do have some great comments, but you also have some people who are out there just to say, “I just want everybody to hear my voice.”

 

We greatly appreciate Mr. Aurini for the opportunity to interview him. An extended clip of Danny de Gracia and D.M.J. Aurini’s interview can be heard by clicking here.


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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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