My first job was for a financial news website, but in my own time, I set up a satirical internet magazine, Global Village Idiot, and then I launched my first blog, Politics of Well-Being, in 2008. I’ve been blogging for 11 years, and much of my inspiration was my recovery from social anxiety.
Everyone is an influencer now. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to know the opinion of everyone else.
How weird is that — as part of my recovery, I exposed myself to the internet. I was essentially saying, “I used to be addicted to the other’s approval, but I’m better now. Please share this.” The trick mirror of the internet makes us all look ridiculous.
Everyone is an influencer now. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants to know the opinion of everyone else. Everyone has a rating for everything — a credit rating, an Uber rating, an Amazon rating. Do I have a Tinder rating? Are there hidden algorithms that decide my level in life, like invisible air currents?
If we hook up and go to bed, our most intimate sexual habits and desires are probably shaped by the internet, and by online porn, that shimmering city in the sky, with a carbon footprint bigger than Belgium, and a daily visitor tally greater than the population of Canada.
As regular visitors to that cosmopolis, we acquire new habits — choking, anyone? — yet even in that lurid city, we yearn for authenticity. The most searched term on PornHub in 2019, after all, was “amateur.”
Social media has also totally transformed our politics, in a decade. It’s ripped apart our sense of trust in media and politicians. A photo gets circulated of a boy with pneumonia, who, through a lack of available beds, is forced to sleep on the floor of the Leeds hospital. There is outrage.
But then another story circulates that a Labour party protester punched health secretary Matt Hancock outside the hospital. That story is retweeted by the BBC and ITV’s chief political reporters
Another story circulates that the photo of the boy was faked. The exact same wording is repeated by several fake accounts.
This story is picked up and retweeted by a Daily Telegraph columnist to her 40,000 followers.
It turns out both these latter stories were made-up, and circulated by Tory party spin doctors.
But it doesn’t even matter. Enough disinformation has been sown that we’re not quite sure what the truth is. Perhaps we give up on the idea of truth entirely and shrug.
This is exactly what Russian politics is like. I know because I used to live in Putin’s Russia. Who knows what’s going on? Who knows who really blew up the Moscow apartments in 2002? Who knows if Putin is really one of the richest men in the world? Who knows?
Out of that shrug comes apathy, hopelessness, truth bubbles, and crazy conspiracy theories. That’s why Russia has waged disinformation campaigns against other countries (as my old colleague from Moscow, Peter Pomerantsev, explored) — to undermine liberalism by eroding the very idea of truth.
But the situation is more dire than that. The trick mirror turns everything into a performance, so political debate becomes wrestling — a cartoonish gladiatorial combat designed not to converse with the other, but to win cheers from your fans. Every gesture seems phony — virtue signaling or moral grandstanding.
The internet creates bubbles of adoration and chasms of incomprehension. The morning after the British election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with bewilderment. How could the country vote for the Tories and Brexit? After all those tweets! Will that lead to people spending less time trying to influence others on social media? No chance.
We’re all in our own reality tunnels, lovingly created for us by the tech titans.
As the internet erodes our ability to understand people outside of our filter bubble, it erodes the center ground and erodes our trust in the mainstream media. The BBC was the big loser this election, but all the TV channels lost. Biased! Stitch-up! Liars! You’ve been played!
The poor BBC. It was the glue that held the U.K. together for 80 years. But less than half of young people in Britain watch it now. We’re all in our own reality tunnels, lovingly created for us by the tech titans.
The internet was supposed to bring us all together into the “global village,” to turn everyone into centrist free-market liberals. Instead, it’s empowered the fringe and fired up the extremes. The far-right has gone mainstream by embracing the chaotic creativity of the internet. Where 1930s Fascists endlessly paraded the same symbols — the swastika, say — the 2020 far-right pours out an ever-changing stream of memes and insider winks.
The internet creates a feedback loop of mock shock and histrionic outrage. “Welcome to the scream room,” as journalist Laurie Penny would say.
Our very thought-streams have been colonized by the tech giants. I left Twitter because I was starting to think in tweets — I found myself talking to the internet even when I was offline.
I finally tore myself off, but then — obviously — went back on to Twitter this year, with all sorts of misgivings.
Meanwhile, the tech giants get bigger and bigger, with every new outrage, every new spasm of fury, they glow, and they grow. The house always wins.