The Curse of Social Media And the Internet

In the aftermath of the terrible coordinated attacks by suicide bombers on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka that killed more than 300 people and wounded about 500 in churches and hotels across the small nation, the Sri Lankan government took the extraordinary step of shutting down social media platforms, including Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter, in order to prevent the dissemination of misinformation that might incite even more bloodshed among its various sectarian groups.

This decade has seen the spread of social media that rightly might be compared to an out-of-control wildfire. What initially was seen as an innocuous manner of sharing information among friend groups — think of friends sitting around a camp fire telling stories — has turned into a raging inferno whipped by the winds of greed and hatred that is destroying everything in its path.

Say what you want about the recently released Mueller Report, what is beyond dispute is that it shows that the Russian government used social media through coordinated bot attacks to spread misinformation among large swaths of the American public who utilize these forms of media. In short, the Russians are using social media to undermine our democracy.

The attacker in New Zealand who committed the atrocities in two mosques drew his inspiration from social media postings by right-wing organizations and individuals from around the world and then posted his carnage live on-line. It was hours before the social media companies were able to take down what he posted, but by then the damage had been done and his carnage had been viewed around the globe.

In some respects, these abuses of on-line platforms by those who wish to spread fear and disinformation are just the tip of the iceberg of the curse that has become the internet.

There is no such thing as privacy for anybody, unless you live under the proverbial rock. Everything we do on-line is tracked and establishes a profile that can be used — and misused — by those who are keeping track.

The Chinese government is showing first-hand how the internet can be wielded by a malevolent government (and non-government actors) to control both unfavored opposition groups and individuals.

The Chinese are employing facial recognition software to identify every person in their country — a monumental task in a nation of a billion or so people — but it already is being used to keep track of, and suppress, minority religious groups.

The Chinese government also is issuing a “score” for every person in the country — think of it as a credit score, but taken to the nth degree — that ultimately will rank every person in the country on a scale of social and economic acceptability, creating a hierarchy that will determine a person’s lifelong fate.

It also is clear that the internet has become the new battlefield among nations and others. Who needs nuclear weapons when a hostile government or terrorist organization or criminal enterprise can disable a nation’s energy grid or wreak havoc on the financial system or hold individuals and businesses hostage simply by employing malevolent software?

America’s military might — our trillions of dollars worth of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, and drones — is no match for a computer virus or worm that attacks our nation’s infrastructure.

George Orwell, in his novel “1984,” describes a dystopian future in which the government, symbolized by Big Brother, scrutinizes every human action with the aim of creating conformity among its citizens.

Orwell wrote his novel in 1948. It is ironic — and incredibly prescient of Orwell — that the Internet as we know it today was beginning to take shape in 1984.

It is clear in 2019 that the world Orwell predicted in 1984 has arrived — and  we fear that things are going to get a lot worse before we figure out how to get this Frankenstein monster under control, if we ever do.

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