I was browsing through some of the sources I have used for this column recently and one from the past (September 19, 2016) caught my interest again, “I used to be a Human Being “ by Andrew Sullivan. It was a criticism of the social outcomes wrought by, you guessed it, the internet, but it was the subtitle that really interested me: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.” He backs up his claims that range from spread of misinformation to the mechanisms it uses that will lead to addiction. If your search engine can find the article, I highly recommend reading it if only for the line, ”If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out.”

My initial reaction was — if that was true over five years ago, is it better now or worse? Well, to cut to the chase, some things are better and some are worse.

PROS AND CONS

On the positive side, the internet has a plethora of videos from showing you how to fix your washing machine to dealing with your computer (most of the time). It’s an easy way to keep in touch with friends, make travel plans, arrange your photos, shop, and, well, you fill in the rest. One can subscribe to receive current news on the Washington Post, The New York Times, Wikipedia and the Wall Street Journal to check or explore source materials for their column. Just sayin’.

On the negative side there also exist sites that can cause harm to the user and thus harm society. For example, consider the truly evil websites like the “how to commit suicide” website directed at teens which can be easily spread via the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok sites. Additionally, the TikTok site has an app that recommends teens to take extreme measures to lose weight with diets ranging from 300 calories per day to taking laxatives after overeating and if they find that they just can’t adhere to the stupid and spartan diet, other teens resort to shaming them, “You realize giving up after a week. Isn’t going to get you anywhere, right? ... You’re disgusting, it’s really embarrassing.”

To be fair, TikTok said it would adjust its recommendation algorithms to avoid showing users too much of the same content, “as part of a broad reevaluation of social media platforms and the potential harm they pose to younger users.”

To test this out I tried typing “how to commit suicide” in google search and got 322,000,000 hits and the first page looked like this”

Help is available

Speak with someone today

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Hours: Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish. Learn more

1-800-273-8255

Intercepting and rerouting queries like these is best handled by the operating system or browser instead of TikTok itself.

RUMOR TO DANGER

The internet is exceptionally good at spreading most any unsubstantiated rumor. like the “Pizzagate” affair which included the outragious claims that Hilary Clinton was using a pizza shop to snare unsuspecting children that were to be sold to sex traffickers.

“Pizzagate was so effective in convincing one man that pedophile Democrats were abusing children in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant that in 2016, he showed up with an AR-15 to “rescue” the nonexistent children. He was sentenced to four years in prison for the three shots he fired into the restaurant. Pizzagate was a cautionary tale, showing how online conspiracy theories about sex-trafficked children could lead to real-life violence. But that did nothing to stop more made-up stories from spreading.”

For a more comprehensive analysis, search on:

“Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C 2016” on washingtonpost.com

For another horrific example of the internet amplifying rumors and presenting them as facts, search on “Wayfair hoax Washington Post” where a weird combination of circumstance and a propensity to believe conspiracy theories turned a harmless two-day run-away by a teen into another sex-trafficking bundle of misinformation, harming many folks along the way. The article is too long to describe all of the mayhem caused, not least that the police and social services personnel were reassigned from real jobs to work on this fake one.

A less deadly but important example is from the Dec 13, 2021 article in the New York Times,

“Now in Your Inbox: Political Misinformation”

“At least eight Republican lawmakers sent fund-raising emails containing a brazen distortion of a potential settlement with migrants separated from their families during the Trump administration. One of them, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, falsely claimed that President Biden was “giving every illegal immigrant that comes into our country $450,000.”

Those claims were grounded in news that the Justice Department was negotiating payments to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of immigrant families whom the Trump administration had separated, some of whom have not been reunited. But the payments, which are not final and could end up being smaller, would be limited to that small fraction of migrants.”

SPINNING PLATES

This is a good example of fibbing by omission. What the Inbox article omitted was an explanation of why it might actually be a cheaper and a more efficient way to control the current flood of immigrants into this country. It could cost more money for continuing to enforce the “illegal immigrant” problem we already are confronted with. But, then again we are dealing with politicians, and as the old saying goes, “The best way to tell if a politician is lying is that his lips are moving.”

The Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) states in his book “The Aims of Education” a viewpoint that I have always thought as a given: “Civilization advances in direct proportion to the number of operations humanity can perform without thinking about them”. And I still believe it applies to many things today such as elevators, air conditioners, and automobiles, but it seems to me that this viewpoint is not entirely true about the internet. Along with its many conveniences come unforeseen problems that can only be solved by thinking about them.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.

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