Opinion | Only You Can Prevent Dystopia


The new year is here, and online, the forecast calls for several seasons of hell. Tech giants and the media have scarcely figured out all that went wrong during the last presidential election — viral misinformation, state-sponsored propaganda, bots aplenty, all of us cleaved into our own tribal reality bubbles — yet here we go again, headlong into another experiment in digitally mediated democracy.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m terrified. I spend a lot of my time looking for edifying ways of interacting with technology. In the last year, I’ve told you to meditate, to keep a digital journal, to chat with people on the phone and to never tweet. Still, I enter the new decade with a feeling of overwhelming dread. There’s a good chance the internet will help break the world this year, and I’m not confident we have the tools to stop it.

Unless, that is, we are all really careful. As Smokey Bear might say of our smoldering online discourse: Only you can prevent dystopia!

And so: Here are a few tips for improving the digital world in 2020.

If I were king of the internet, I would impose an ironclad rule: No one is allowed to share any piece of content without waiting a day to think it over.

Virality was once the delightful miracle of a networked age; you’d see a funny video going around, get caught up in the collective wonder and hilarity, and forward it on to your 100 closest pals. At its meme-ified best, participating in this sort of viral feast felt like a boon to collective social bonding. Remember, kids, that one glorious day we were all talking about the crazy dress? What times, what times!

But, The Dress notwithstanding, in the 2010s virality got too easy, and then it grew sour, venal and dishonest. Nobody’s counting, but by my unscientific estimate almost everything that became instantly popular online in the last decade turned out to be problematic in one way or another. That photo of the shark washed onto a freeway by a hurricane? Fake. The culture-war-defining outrage your aunt just posted to Facebook? Debunked, of course. The suddenly popular influencer? A “milkshake duck” running from his past.

Social networks and even governments are looking into ways to curb viral misinformation, but this fight will define our age. The root of the problem is that humans are weak, gullible dolts; every day many of us, even people who should know better — folks with fancy jobs and blue check marks next to our handles — keep falling for online hoaxes. Virality hijacks our better instincts, and because so many of the internet’s business models benefit from instant popularity, there’s a great deal of money and power riding on our failings.

There is only one long-term fix: that a critical number of us alter how we approach viral content. Let’s all consciously embark on a mind-set shift. In 2020, question anything that everyone’s talking about, especially if it fits all your priors, or there’s some kind of ad money involved. (Hint: There’s always ad money involved.) If you can’t stop sharing, at least slow your roll. The stakes are enormous; there’s no room for error. Strive to be better, please.

In the 2010s, Twitter became the center of the political universe. In some ways this was for the better — Twitter is a haven for righteous activism against the global powers that be — but most times, it was for the worse. Twitter is a daily toxic nightmare of reflexive egotism and groupthink that will prompt you to question your priorities, not to mention your sanity.

By Farhad Manjoo

2020-01-01 15:00:06

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