Point Internet. Knowledge. World
by Carly Goldberg
Counterpoint The Internet: Too much of a good thing?
by Jason Raymond
If you were to mention the Internet to one of the many busy and flustered Michigan students, the ever-troublesome MWireless network might be one of the first things to come to mind. Stepping back, though, they would probably acknowledge that the majority of the world enjoys countless benefits due to the Internet. The Internet has given us access to innumerable new sources of information, allowing us both to improve our quality of life and expand our intellectual horizons. Anyone with a connection to the web has easy and inexpensive access to billions of findings from news sources and multi-million dollar research projects. This diverse sea of information is not only intrinsically interesting and useful but also essential to the health of our democracy. The Internet makes it easy to engage with a variety of perspectives on any given issue, minimizing political polarization and empowering us to be smarter and stronger citizens.
The basis for the democratic function of the Internet is its promotion of free speech. Blogs, independent news sources, and social media like Twitter and Facebook make it possible for anyone to express their views online. In many cases, the Internet provides an open forum for people who may have no other means to express themselves freely. The 2009 Iranian election protests were even nicknamed the “Twitter Revolution” because Twitter allowed protestors to provide real-time updates on the events unfolding in Teheran. Without the Internet, these voices may never have been heard.
Even more important, however, is the diversity of opinion to which the Internet exposes us. The quick stream of online information allows citizens to receive thousands of different stories from a variety of news sources, which prevents them from only hearing one side of the story. A 2010 study from the National Bureau for Economic Research found that most Internet users consume news from a variety of sources, including those with completely different political orientations. In other words, the Internet allows us to explore a variety of viewpoints. With this knowledge in hand, we can assess the history, conflict, and stakeholders in each national and global issue and form our own opinions.
Some may argue that the Internet gives us nothing new, as information online has always been available in print publications. While this is true, painless ease of access to knowledge is one of the most important qualities that has made the Internet so successful. Prior to web access, researchers and students had to pour through piles of publications to gain the facts they desired. Today, however, anyone with access to a computer can do this research in minutes using databases and search engines.
Because the Internet is so important to our lives as students and citizens, it is essential that we expand web access to as many people as possible. President Obama’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act includes over $7 billion in funds to provide broadband to Americans who cannot afford access. Investing this massive sum of money in broadband demonstrates our confidence that the Internet can help fill some of the gaps found in the American social system. Rural schools, for example, have a long history of poor performance relative to more affluent urban and suburban schools. Giving these students access to the Internet can help to address educational inequalities by giving them the opportunity to independently expand their knowledge on the World Wide Web. This approach would not only improve student knowledge but would also make them more sophisticated consumers of news and research. Learning to quickly view lots of information would teach students to easily appraise differing sides of an argument. By doing so, students gain a less biased opinion of the subjects they research, improving their ability to discuss an issue with people of opposing viewpoints. These are critical skills for academic success, but they are essential to economic and civic life as well. By mitigating the negative effects of inadequate schooling, increased broadband access would give everyone greater social mobility and the power to shape political life as a well-informed citizen.
The perils of political polarization are grave. When we only pay attention to viewpoints we agree with, it’s all too easy for us to forget that, conservative or liberal, we are citizens of one America and one world. We tend to demonize those who don’t agree with us, seeing them as enemies and not opponents. Luckily for us, however, each second of the day, our world becomes smaller and more connected thanks to the Internet. The citizens of the world have joined a “global neighborhood” and the only way to make the neighborhood function is to know and understand your neighbor. This can be accomplished using the Internet or by asking for a cup of sugar. Internet communication seems a bit more viable.
In 2010, three in four Americans went online and accessed the Internet, but at the University of Michigan, that number is undoubtedly near 100%. UM students need the Internet for everything from communicating with professors to accessing course resources, submitting assignments, and registering for classes. In fact, most of you probably applied to the University of Michigan online and received your acceptance invitation via email.
The Internet is an invaluable tool in both our academic work and our personal lives. The wealth of information accessible through online libraries, databases, journals, and newspapers makes conducting research both easier and more productive. On a personal level, online newspapers, blogs, and social networking websites provide real-time updates and information on world affairs, controversial issues, upcoming events, and friends and family.
Few can reasonably imagine a world without the Internet and its innumerable benefits. Yet the expansion of the Internet into every crevice of American society has surely come at a cost, and to mitigate those costs, we must first recognize them. Through its ability to rapidly spread misinformation and reinforce preconceived biases, the Internet threatens the health of political discourse in America.
Fundamentally, the freedom provided by the Internet allows for online inaccuracies and misinformation. Low barriers to entry for Internet bloggers allow anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to start a blog or comment on an issue—expertise or knowledge not required. Combined with the fact that information spreads rapidly over the Internet, this mixture of stupidity and speed creates an enormously powerful tool for the misinformed.
We can see this particularly well in the case of Shirley Sherrod, the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was wrongfully fired due to the rapid spread of online misinformation. When conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted incomplete videos of a speech by Sherrod, a media firestorm erupted, with many calling for her head over seemingly racist comments. Spurred on by public outcry and claims of racism within his own administration, President Obama and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack fired Sherrod for her comments.
However, further investigation and a complete reading of the transcript indicated that Sherrod had in fact condemned racism in her speech. Only after several interviews on network television and cable news was she able to clear her name and reputation. But the damage online was irreversible. Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to offer her another position in the Department of Agriculture, Sherrod decided to retire from public life and focus on personal initiatives to combat racial prejudice.
In addition to propagating misinformation, the Internet also reinforces preconceived biases. During an online search, users have the ability to input their own search terms and queries. This element of user control naturally limits the scope of the research, as the search engine returns results most representative of the user’s search terminology.
For example, in researching the consequences of President Obama’s health care plan during its debate in late 2009, many conservative users who limited online searches to “Obama death panels” would have been met with hundreds of blogs and articles validating claims made by Sarah Palin that the new health care law condoned forms of involuntary euthanasia. However, if users expanded their search terms and instead inputted “Obama health care law” or “health care reform,” legitimate search results would have illustrated the inaccuracy of Palin’s “death panel” claim, a claim considered by Politifact, a nonpartisan fact checker, as 2009’s Lie of the Year.
Generally, the output of an online search matches the scope of its search inputs, regardless of the accuracy of the inputs themselves. As shown above, this further reinforces any preconceived bias represented in a user’s search terminology and proliferates misinformed extremism in our political discourse.
Other recognizable costs of widespread Internet usage across the nation include the invasion of our privacy and our infatuation with ourselves. These characteristics are well represented through the pervasive use of social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter; but, the biggest concern with widespread Internet usage is our complete and utter dependency on the web. Almost everything we do, see, and hear has some form of an online presence. Just as American society has learned the costs of our dependence on oil, we must recognize that too much of a good thing is never a sustainable trajectory for societal growth. Satisfying ourselves with inaccurate information built from our own biases limits our ability to explore productive solutions to the urgent problems of today.
It is not my intention to argue for a return to the times of letter-writing and encyclopedias, but rather that we must recognize and understand the costs associated with widespread Internet usage. Only then will society elevate its discourse to levels of independent thought necessary for genuine progress in the 21st Century.
About the Issue
Point author: Carly Goldberg is majoring in Environmental Economics and Policy through Program in the Environment. She currently serves as the Vice President of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Student Government.
Counterpoint author: Jason Raymond is a University of Michigan senior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the Vice President of the Michigan Student Assembly.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer and Matt Friedrichs
Cover by: Benjamin English