I started this new podcast by the New York Times called Rabbit Hole, it’s a fascinating look inside the lives of people that were transformed by the internet, and not always (actually rarely) in a good way. It’s funny timing because I’ve been contemplating this question a lot since being in isolation. I feel like this is God’s time out for all of us, almost like a way of telling us that we aren’t going forward the right way. We aren’t living the way we should be - and I think the internet could be the source of why. Let me try to explain
I came from a small town in a liberal city, but my town and it’s people are by no means liberal. From a very early age I had a sense of justice and what’s right and what’s wrong. I knew I was acting like a bad kid sometimes and so I stopped being like that once I was a particular age. I think you can all that maturity. But I kept seeing people around me who didn’t make such a change. Going further down the road in life, I always liked small circles rather than a gazzillion friends. I wanted friends I could actually rely on. A benefit of growing up in the small town of South Boston. But in high school and especially in college you’d meet people who’d rather everyone know their name. That’s fine, I never did. I just wanted to do good work and learn as much as I can and be as good of a friend as I could be.
The benefit I had in college was I knew how lucky I was to be there. I never entered college with a chagrin, or fought myself to go there - I willingly and happily went to college. And sitting here, writing this I know for a fact it’s among the very best things I did for myself. Why? Because I’m capable now. I’m a completely different human being, my capacities are different, the way I relate to others is different and the way I think for all, not just for myself, is different. College didn’t change who I was, it changed what I was capable of.
I was too consumed with the me before. What I wanted to do, the mistakes I made, Generally I was just more self centered.
College changed all that.
Learning, actually learning, expands your mind and your awareness to see that the world around you is bigger than just what you want to do in it. There are people smarter than you, and you can learn from them. There are people who go through even worse things than you did - and you can learn from them, too. You can connect with them, you can share love with them. To appreciate someone is to love them. To listen, is to also love. We forget that an act of love can be this small. But as I continued my college journey I started to slowly actually mature, paying attention to the things the world demands we pay attention to, not just what I want to do or like to do.
I advocate for education as much as I possibly can. Because it meant the world to a poor Irish kid from Southie. But I know there are lots who went to college and wish they hadn’t. I do too, I wish the same-because if there wasn’t so many, those people who really do need to go but come into contact with these individuals, and subsequently their bad experiences or regret in going-it warps their understanding of what college is or why you would want to go, or its effects on their path. Which in turn ends up really affecting their entire life.
That’s why I critique people like Joe Rogan. We have to be so careful when we project our walk in life onto someone else who is just starting theirs. We have to be way more careful in how we talk about things and much more sensitive to the effect it has on another. People are very careless in what they share sometimes, often selfish, not taking into account that it could really effect another.
Enter the internet
If you think that coming into contact with someone who had a bad experience in college, and just hearing what that experience was like effects your own perception of what college is or why you’d want to go- then what do you think the internet does and how do you think it affects all of us!?
It’s a massive question and one I’m only just starting to think about. Could it possibly illuminate a lot of the sources of our societal ills right now in this country? Right now in America we are having a tough time agreeing on the color of the sky. And in a democracy, which we are afforded to live in, you cannot do anything without having a conversation grounded in mutuality, respect goodwill or a desire to compromise - but it has to be grounded in something. You have to debate in good will. It’s the only way the system works.
So why the focus on the internet one could say, shouldn’t we be more focused on the individuals that make up those debates? The congressman and woman?
While that may seem like a logical place to start, I’m actually going to argue that it’s the opposite of where we should begin examining. Where we should begin examining, in my opinion, are the ways or even possibility that the internet affects our political life. We must first, in my opinion, look to what it has done to ourselves. What has the internet done to my own understanding of the world around me? We must begin there.
Like I said, I grew up around a lot of traditional Republican thinking, the less government is involved with our life the better. I grew up to mature, because I had studied early American history, into a more federalist view of government, and I volunteered early on in my life in politics, I was 17. While my friends were watching wrestling documentaries I was watching a documentary on Babe Ruth, watching HBO’s John Adams, and other historical documentaries. I’ve always loved learning about my country, where we came from and how we got here. God bless my mother, she used my father’s child support for the best thing she ever could, a great education. So as I’m growing up and getting the internet in my house-naturally you come into contact with those first internet videos of 9/11 and other clips from people like Michael Moore.
Crash bang. Enter the internet. Again.
The first time my existence was met with the force of the internet. All of sudden I was watching these videos of 9/11 from every perspective you could find. Then watching the followup videos of people trying to explain how the towers were ‘blown up’ and all of the other sorts of crazy, people came up with to try to explain something so unimaginable, so terrifying, so destructive. Here I was, 12, I was impressionable, I was interested and I had this stream of information at my fingertips. I was just going deeper and deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole, getting mad at the Bush Administration about what I perceived to be their failure in protecting us. The videos, and what people like Michael Moore did with his film Farenheight 9/11 was play on these very visceral real and pulsating emotions of the time and sensationalize the available information to provide us with answers that felt good at the time. The world was changing so fast and with such consequence, the ripples couldn’t even be thought about- not until a decade later (at least).
This is what young people underestimate about that period of time, and honestly don’t take into consideration- just the magnitude of what the changes were in this country.
But not just here, the entire world changed and the entire world has never returned to ‘normal.’
So here I am, a now 14, 15 year old who thinks he has a political identity. I think I know exactly what occurred leading up to 9/11 and I think I know exactly how it happened and blah blah bla.
Of course, I didn’t. But the internet sure made me feel like I did.
Let’s fast forward a few years when Pres. Obama was elected - this was when I started to actually see what the internet could do.
I volunteered for the person he ran against in the primary, and I did so because I believed deeply in her ability to lead, as I still do. I’ll never regret that experience, because it allowed me to learn more about the man I thought I didn’t want to win. But once he did win, and once he won the Presidency, I was very open to receiving this man as he was. Which was the 44th President of these United States. But what I saw in the months and years to come truly took me back and I guess it’s taken me this long to fully understand to be able to speak on.
This was a period of time in America, directly after his election, where the hope and renewed sense of optimism truly took over the nation. This was a game changing moment in our countries history, one fought for for so long on the backs of African-Americans for centuries and through so much struggle hardship loss and pain. This was a shining moment in our nations history. But it didn’t take long for the sweetness of the moment to be soured by the forces of the internet.
I’ll never forget when he closed Guantanamo, it was like the first week he was in office, a stark reminder that this man we elected was vastly different than who had preceded him. But even now you were hearing this loud noise coming from the right. It was already present. This almost knee jerk reaction to him being the first African American President, the skepticism, the innuendo, the rumors. Everything he said was met with skepticism, even when he killed America’s most notorious fugitive. When he killed Osama is when I really started taking issue with this loud noise reverberating from, mainly the internet. This time, in fact he hadn’t killed Osama and in fact it was all a show and in fact how we never got to see his body meant Obama was lying and covering up what really happened. And blah blah blah blah he’s terrible! This is what actually happened.
Cash bang. That pesky internet again.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the next 7 years would be spent like this-with everything that ever came out of his mouth. This man’s entire Presidency was sabotaged by the internet. But worse, these things on the internet were being picked up by a ‘news’ network at night. His entire Presidency would be spent desperately trying to discredit these conspiracy theories. But they never stopped.
During this time I was very busy in the midst of college, navigating the very many obstacles that one runs into during these years. It was fun, it was challenging, it was a great time- and I had a great learning experience. And this was when I finally got to take government electives. But I never understood why there was this climate of conflict, everywhere you turned to do with politics now. And I mean, this wasn’t the first time I experienced people having a negative reaction to the President, I grew up during the Bush years remember. So hating on the president wasn’t new to me, but this was different. What was happening to this President was different. It was this visceral, almost gut reaction, of hate thrown at him no matter what he proposed or what came out of his mouth. Now remember, I consider myself pretty politically astute at this point, I had been paying attention to politics since I was about 14, having volunteered just a few years later. So I’m not naive, even at my age, going into these debates, but what I saw and what I heard truly shocked me.
This is when people like Glenn Beck were on the rise, Bill O’Reilly was still looming large - each and every night between the vitriol that would come out of social media during the day, then would get echoed and amplified on Fox News at night. This marked a turning point in the media covered and their relationship to the office of President. Before too long, this President was surrounded by all sides (because at this point even liberals were losing patience with someone who they saw as too compromising) The conspiracies kept coming. Death camps, doctors killing people, people not being able to get a doctor being left for dead, I mean the stuff they were coming up with was insane, but also it was extremely damaging. Not just to public discord but to our perception of the world around us and to our view of the Office of President.
Sensationalism, in a warped way, heightens our awareness of things. We were only a couple of years removed from the very real and palpable sense of hope-and for some reason, because of the internet, here we were in conversational civil war.
The disrespect didn’t just stop there, because of this disinformation starting on the internet and the very same disinformation being amplified on Fox News-meant that it spilled over into actual civil discord, to actual people who work in that body.
During an actual State Of The Union in 2009, congressional Republican Joe Wilson yelled out at the sitting president mid speech, live on television. The reaction of the speaker and of the Vice President spoke volumes. It marked a devastating loss of decorum and lack of respect for the nations highest office.
This disrespect permeates all of American life now.
All because Joe Wilson believed Michele Bachman’s fear mongering lie about government controlled healthcare. All of which started on the internet.
This disinformation plays on our emotions, and eventually if you provide enough gas the match will be lit.
The disrespect, these conspiracies that were injected during this time in American politics- were directly imported from the internet.
Fast forward a bit of time and we were in another election year, this time filled with even more crazy conspiracy theories and conjecture.
Remember the vice presidential debates of 2012? I do! It was like one side was living in a bubble, and the other side was living on planet earth. This only got worse during the Presidential debates that year, the difference was even more pronounced. Mitt Romney tried to paint a picture of America’s military being depleted and Obama essentially being in derelict of duty (which is a conspiracy that started on the internet about how Obama is secretly installing terrorists inside our government)- Obama then points out that the modernization of the Military required changes. Just because, as Obama pointed out, we use less horses and bayonets doesn’t mean we are less prepared to defend ourselves. But if you visited certain sites of listened to certain peoples talk shows-you’d come away with a vastly different opinion.
A prime example of our bubbles now.
This is how the internet is now involved in our lives. Starting on the internet, the picture is painted of America’s military being depleted, then that very same talking point gets picked up by people at Fox and is now apart of American political discord. The hosts ask the congress men and woman and there you have how this stuff from the internet winds up in the mouths of elected leaders.
Now let’s look at the next Presidential election-when the internet played a role in making up our minds over who to support for President.
A company IRA, which stands for Internet Research Agency, was created by the Kremlin on the command of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their intent is to spread disinformation to destabilize world governments and prop up the Russian state as more legitimate. Please go google Internet Research Agency and you will find tons of material to support what I am saying, I’m not making this up. So what they did during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections was create fake websites, groups on Facebook, they hosted events specifically aimed at increasing tension In our society. So they would create a black lives matter Facebook group, upload tons of videos they’ve phished from users on the internet and create posts to stir up the black lives matter supporter crowd on Facebook, and at the same time would create a blue lives matter Facebook group and use the exact same tactics just on a completely different side of the same political debate. This is how they destabilize our election process. Data is used against us. Our data.
This is how tension on social media was exacerbated last cycle, there were so many posts we came across that were created by Russians it’s hard to put an exact number on. But the Hillary Clinton had a childhood sex ring in D.C-that was Russian. The fake social media accounts-they were Russian. The entire e-mail story was invoked by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Roger Stone, who at the time was ‘working’ on behalf of candidate Trump’s campaign, was contacted by Russian agents and told that, if the Trump campaign wanted, Wikileaks could provide tons of damaging emails on the Hillary campaign. Stone worked as the middle man between Russia and WikiLeaks to bring us all that would become the Hillary Clinton ‘email-gate’.
All thanks to the internet, (And to Russian hackers, thanks WikiLeaks!)
Not only did this serve as confirmation bias for ALL of the American’s already tired of the Clintons, but it further disinformed the general electorate. Instead of focusing on one candidates unfitness we focused on why we couldn’t wrap our arms around the one we knew who was. Not just that, but given how public the release was, now the Justice Dept had to get involved to reopen her ‘criminal’ case to make sure that no email that was just leaked would change the decision of whether or not she committed a federal crime.
Of course, nothing contained in the email dump was illegal or evidence that she committed any crime, but the public already made up their mind. To them it didn’t matter. Putin had already won. The email dump further made her unpalatable to a lot of the American electorate.
Another example of the power of the internet.
This was the single biggest and most successful espionage operation by any foreign government to invade our political process, with disinformation. And while Russia may have not changed a particular persons hand from pulling a particular candidates lever on Election Day-they surely changed a lot of peoples perceptions about Hillary Clinton’s capability and of her judgement.
So, not only did Putin succeed in weakening America, his ultimate personal foe, but he got to personally hurt a person he despises for her strength-Mrs. Clinton.
I, for one, am of the mind that if a Russian President hates someone, then we should probably rally around that person. But I’ll digress.
Oh! And remember all of the videos being cut up and passed around online showing Hillary Clinton coughing, being helped after a fall, or any of the other embarrassing things that cameras have captured over her many years in the public eye? Yea, Fox News ran that story too. Every night during that time, is she capable of being President? Now, remember when then-candidate Trump said, during a live Presidential Debate, that she does’t have the stamina to be President? Well see, that’s one, easy, example of how this disinformation on the internet infects our political perception.
This same stuff is already being crafted and distributed about the current candidate. So these practices aren’t going away, in fact they’re only going to increase and get more sophisticated.
But terrifyingly, it doesn’t just stop there now. These conspiracies, this disinformation is, A) still being produced and B) now actually being amplified by members of congress themselves. People in the governing body aren’t even sophisticated enough to distinguish it anymore. This, to me, is what is so dangerous about Trump’s twitter feed-this is quite literally propaganda. By definition. And how many millions of people read them as fact? This is the devastating effect on our society. Fathers and son’s can’t talk, mothers and daughters fight needless- because two humans no longer share a baseline from which to relate. They are on two entirely different planes.
This is because of the internet.
How we bridge this gap and help bring people back down to share a reality is a question too big for me to answer. But I think the first step is to just pause and ruminate on all of this. Think about what it means to you.
Actually acknowledge that yes, our existence IS being affected by this thing called the internet. Something that I wasn’t even sure was possible before I asked myself this question and listened to NYT’s Rabbit Hole.
The internet itself has grown and matured over the years, methods and techniques for getting people to do x or y have grown and matured along with it. Algorithms run the internet now, and data runs political campaigns.Why do you think the Wall Street Journal costs $36 dollars per month. Information is valuable now. That’s why all you run into is garbage on YouTube and forums etc. Watch Hacked on Netflix, it’s shocking and disturbing- honestly it’s terrifying. And we aren’t even having this conversation in the country right now, we are too busy focusing on our own President’s feelings. While we have very real problems to fix and threats to address . We haven’t been brave enough, or nonpartisan enough, to have this conversation.
But I’m praying tens of thousands of dead Americans and this election serves as something of a purge in not only government but of our perception of things. There has been such fundamental and massive failures in our governing body since 9/11, perhaps NOW is FINALLY the time we stop giving our attention to people who divide us or campaign on being strong man or those with the intent of weakening our governing body, or those who would rather pull us back into the past. The wheels of progress always turn forward.
Writing this makes me ask a question though, what if you are a person who didn’t get to go to college, who reads zero journalism and instead subscribes to newsletters from a website, or listens to a radio station or podcast and when they get home they put on television to get the days news. What happens to that kind of person? Well, first, that’s most people. Most people do not subscribe to actual journalism anymore. Sadly. And the internet is also to blame there. For some reason it was like the California gold rush to move all of life online, not being sensitive to the inherent cannibalistic nature of capitalism. It was inevitable that newspapers would evaporate. But what we don’t think about enough, and something that was not guaranteed-was how we would get sold on and sucked into skewed sources of information, sometimes entirely artificial. . Jefferson and Madison wouldn’t be happy, our entire lasting (and envied) system of government was created off of the back of information. Jefferson whole heartedly believed that if an an enlightened people can make decisions as the facts presented themselves-well then that people would always be free and never under the guise of tyranny. That’s America. That’s what the American system of government is based on. So, you have to ask yourself- what happened?