Domestic Affairs

The Internet Redefines American Discourse

Society innovates and redefines itself at lightning speed. Government, slow and frankly unequipped, scrambles to regulate these changes, usually years too late and long after they have made an incredible impact on the public.

This perpetual game of catch up is evident through American history. For example, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S government struggled to regulate commercial monopolies. Small businesses and low-income Americans suffered while large corporations grew exponentially, gaining both power and influence. Without a substantive reason for regulation, the U.S government allowed years of loss for the average American citizen and unsubstantiated gain for an elite few.

A more disgusting example is the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The federal government only made it mandatory to regulate meat sanitation and inspection at the 20th century corner-cutting meatpacking industry after hundreds of Americans got sick from eating rotten and unsanitary meat.

The game today, while slightly less tangible and definitely less gross, is all about the internet.

On social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, people have the opportunity to share whatever and however much information they want, no matter whether that information is accurate or not. While, from afar, this may not seem inherently detrimental, it has serious, potentially dangerous social and political ramifications.

Take the 2016 election for instance. Whether it be Russian interference in ad campaigns, Cambridge Analytica’s data stealing influence scheme, or the massive echo chamber manipulation that took place on Facebook. Then as now, American discourse was in a perilous situation.

The internet poses a threat to our democracy with an attack on our most fundamental right: the sanctity of our speech.

After years of influence, the U.S government is just now beginning to regulate big tech companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google. While a step in the right direction, the damage has already been done.

It is no surprise that the U.S government would respond so slowly. There is nothing in our founding documents that suggest that the government needs to regulate the internet or the information it propagates. Rather, the opposite. The first amendment bars the U.S government from abridging speech but fails to provide a fundamental definition of what speech is.

I do not mean to trivialize the importance or significance of the Constitution. It epitomizes our democracy. It sets up the groundwork for officials to govern aptly, equitably, and with the will of the people as a priority. Still, we must acknowledge how it lacks adequate solutions to our most critical modern issues, and how, in its ambiguity, it presents us with more confusion than conclusion. 

The founding fathers could not have predicted the internet. They could not have foreseen a global pandemic or expected that, in 2020, a majority of Americans would navigate society through entirely online platforms. The tenets that we live by, as well as the laws we use to govern, do not exist on as sturdy a foundation as they once did. We cannot apply the rules of 1776 to 2020 and expect it to be easy.

In the modern era, with the advent of technology, a growing population, and monumental ideological shifts in what it means to be good, moral, and just, we must question the fundamental purpose and integrity of everything, especially when it poses a risk to our democracy.

So, let us consider, what is speech? Of course, we know what speech is, but have we considered what and how far speech extends? Does a tweet constitute speech? An Instagram post? Do they deserve equal protection? Should we have the ability to say whatever we want, no matter our stature, accuracy, or consequences?

I raise these questions with a much larger, weightier one in mind: How has the internet and our dependence on it redefined our discourse, and has this change made us more or less free?

Some argue that via the internet, citizens have an unparalleled ability to access information and express themselves in the most democratic way possible. Using Google, Facebook, Twitter, and internet databases, anyone with a device and Wi-Fi connection has what may seem like the entirety of the world’s information at their fingertips. We can contact and connect with our friends, family, and idols. We have the opportunity to converse with people across the globe and our neighbors down the street. These benefits are even more prominent in developing countries, where the internet acutely increases social awareness, access to education, and can help end poverty.

However, with this grand expansion comes an ironic sense of confinement. Social media gets marketed as a tool for interconnection and collaboration, but in reality, it is possibly more restricting than any physical environment. This is a result of echo chambers, online pockets created and perpetuated for bias confirmation, affirmation, and the filtering out of disagreeable content.

According to a poll from the Pew Research Center, 83% of users ignore content they find unpleasant or controversial, and 31% specifically tailor their feeds so they do not have to interact with posts they disagree with. When confined to one of these echo chambers, it is nearly impossible to access a diversity of content. Users are blinded by the content they choose to see and dominated by the ideas they already agree with. 

As a result, discourse over the internet spurs and enhances polarization. According to findings presented in a joint study by researchers at Brown and Stanford University, the relative favorability of party affiliates towards their party has increased by over 50% since 1980. Researchers and pundits credit the internet as the impetus for this significant change. They assert that this polarization is at its highest among groups who are most likely to use the internet, citing online segregation and echo chambers as reasons for increased political tensions.

As reported in Pew, 84% of social media users say, when talking about politics online, people are cruel in ways they would never be in person. People are simply meaner and more vitriolic in their discourse online. While not technically a legal issue and impossible to regulate, this still inhibits free discourse by making sharing an opinion synonymous with criticism.

Aside from encouraging hostility, the internet allows for new avenues of foreign and domestic interference in discourse. In 2016, Russia attempted to skew the American presidential election in their favor by infiltrating echo chambers of the American electorate and spreading fake and inflammatory content. While this manipulation of American discourse did not define the election results, there is no question that it thwarted American democracy. Social media, because it can be so interconnecting, is manipulated and used to misinform and sway the public. 

In the age of the internet, we are open to endless possibilities, and yet we have never been more confined, more open to influence, or more out of touch. As COVID-19 restrictions push us further and further online, this influence increases, and our ability to engage in open, unadulterated discourse dwindles.

Without question, the internet has redefined what speech is. As our government scrambles to respond, as we work to fill this redefined narrative, we must speak with both confidence and concern, emphatically and contextually. For the sake of ourselves, we must consider democracy at every turn.

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