As I pray for the shooting victims in Buffalo and read about the shooter being radicalized on the web, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that gun control alone will not end this tragic horror that plays in a loop. Although sensible gun control is long overdue, it is also time to tackle the beast, aka, the internet.
Clearly, we cannot exist without the internet and its magical ability to answer our questions. At the same time, it is an ever-widening and bottomless pit of uncorroborated information, straight up lies, and unimaginable evil.
The internet is a number line with "harmless" on the near end and "vile" on the far end. It is continuous and has no gates. We travel its expanse at-will and without impediments using the rails of Google, eCommerce, and social media.
Our journey starts benignly enough, but danger lurks all around.
At the harmless end is the “everyday practical internet”. We frequently supplant paid expertise with self-serve knowledge on topics like how to deal with Covid, replace a toilet flush plunger, and fix an error code on the thermostat. Google and YouTube are our primary allies, saving us tons of time and aggravation. But if we act on the wrong advice, we might end up drinking bleach, dealing with an overflowing toilet, or frying our appliances. Naturally, we read carefully and check the effectiveness of the content before following through.
We are responsible consumers of this internet.
Next is the ”entertainment and retail internet”. We curate our experiences from a smorgasbord of content on news, shopping, entertainment, exercise, diet, mindfulness, humor, blog, and memes. eCommerce, Etsy, Pinterest, Google, Reddit, Facebook, Insta, Twitter, and TikTok are the go-to navigation aids. With careful maneuvering, we can keep ourselves safe most of the time, although Big Tech’s sneaky machinations pose existential threats.
This internet easily addicts and isolates, drawing us like moths to fire.
Now we enter the malignant zone, starting with the ”manipulative internet”. Stepping into this is easy because there is no burly bouncer at the door. If you linger here long enough, partisan opinion-mongering convinces you all liberals want open borders, lack fiscal control, indulge in voter fraud, pedal climate change fear, and will deliver America to hell in a hand basket. The voices we hear are associated with larger-than-life personalities who monetize their opinions regardless of the harm to society. While Fox and CNN lead the charge with opposing authority, content on 4chan and 8chan heighten the manipulation by allowing users to post anonymously with no fact-checking whatsoever.
Brainwashing is in full force here with loss of moderation and proliferation of unsubstantiated opinions.
Manipulated enough, some effortlessly slide into the “radicalizing internet“. Foreign and domestic actors create havoc here with uncontrolled, rabid, malicious, racist, and violent white supremacism, destructive left wing activism, and religious fundamentalism. These actors spend their time sowing discontent, doling extreme ideology and teaching others how to act on violent beliefs. Case in point is the shooter in Buffalo. 4chan, 8chan and Discord provide safe havens while the radicalized inject hate and conspiracy into our lives.
At this point, danger has us in a chokehold.
Last stop on the continuum, is the “dark web”, the scariest stop of all. This is where illegal things happen in unconstrained ways. Anonymously and under the cover of cryptocurrency intractability, children and women are trafficked, drugs and arms are sold, and hit men are hired. The portal to this vileness is a browser called Tor. Law enforcement organizations across the world keep active tabs on the dark web to prevent atrocity from playing out.
The internet used to be mostly harmless with manipulation, radicalization and the dark web lurking in the fringes. With each passing year, the blend of content is changing and vile is moving closer in.
This sets up our new reality: even if politicians develop the courage to enact sensible gun control laws, the manipulated and radicalized will continue to deliver mass danger by procuring banned weapons on the dark web. We should not delude ourselves into thinking gun control alone is a panacea.
So how do we react?
Install truth meters on internet content? Whose truth will serve as the benchmark because a single version of the truth is contrary to the DNA of the internet. Censor the content? That makes us go weak in the knees, for sure. That leaves only one viable option - take individual responsibility to avoid skewed and malicious content. Cutting off the oxygen from the manipulators will put Big Tech on notice and reduce the reach of those who radicalize.
If we continue to sit idly by while this beast drives our collective thinking and behavior, internet-propelled anarchy is possible in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren.
Now you will understand why I dropped off social media, never mass forward, call out fake content, and keep this blog private. I also don't click on links, open random documents or texts, and avoid websites I have never heard of. It’s this grandma’s way of developing safe habits I can pass on to the the new baby in our lives because we aren't getting off the internet train. Ever.
While we are on the ride of our life, good luck to all of us in tackling the beast in whatever ways we can.
(Image source: memegenerator.net)