Out in the Florida swamps, where men may be swamp things and believe in a jealous divinity, a crackpot pastor decided to commemorate Sept. 11 by the time-honored practice of book burning. In this instance, the book was the Quran.
That act of lunacy roiled the nation, arousing criticism from the White House as well as General David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Minority Leader John Boehner. It also sparked protests from Muslim nations and a slew of media requests for interviews. That pastor reportedly canceled the event late Thursday, but only after gaining worldwide notoriety for planning it in the first place.
This incident illustrates the dark side of the Internet. Yes, it makes us one world; yes, it brings about the global village. But where Marshall McLuhan went wrong in his view of the global village is, he forgot that the lunatics are right there next to the rest of the villagers. You can’t hide from them in a village as you can in a town or city.
Worse yet, everyone knows everyone else’s business in a village. That doesn’t happen in cities. So the very technology that makes the world a global village is the technology that endangers it, giving undue power to the dwellers at the fringe of society to shape our politics.
Look at it this way: Without the Internet, would this pastor’s plans have been known outside of the local trailer park? Would the media be besieging him with requests for interviews? Would the White House and senior Cabinet officials as well as the top commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan have taken the time to plead with him to cease and desist? Would anyone care?
Suicide by Twitter
It’s the publicity the Internet and tools like Twitter helped generate that helped strengthen the pastor’s movement.
In and of itself, that capability of technology to affect politics is not a bad thing. It keeps politicians honest because they can’t deny having said or done something when it’s on the Internet for everyone to see.
Stuart MacLennan, a U.K. parliamentary candidate from the Labor Party, learned this the hard way earlier this year when he, in effect, committed career suicide by Twitter. The Scottish labor party sacked him for posting denigrating comments on his Twitter page. He called the elderly “coffin-dodgers” and used nasty names to refer to the Speaker of the House of Commons and other politicians.
During the last presidential election in 2008, YouTube gave out Flip video cameras and urged voters to post videos of themselves voting onto its website. The implications of that go well beyond being cool for those who remember how minority voters were intimidated and often prevented from voting by “volunteers” at voting booths in the Deep South. Nothing makes thugs squirm more than the thought of having their actions broadcast for the world to see.
And who can forget the Tweets and online videos broadcast by dissenters during Iran’s presidential elections? These gave the lie to the government line that everything was nice and orderly.
Shout, Shout, Let It All Out
The downside of communications enablement through technology is that anyone who’s crazy enough or prepared to be obnoxious enough can get a barrage of publicity completely out of proportion to the actual relevance of his or her act. Hence the fuss over the Quran-burning pastor.
Another danger is that people can selectively use technology to clamp down on the news.
For example, for the past two years, a group of conservative members of the social media site Digg.com have reportedly been censoring liberal and progressive stories by voting them down.
In other words, they have shaped the news people read on that site. For example, the site’s upcoming “Political” section of the front page was spammed daily with white supremacist material from the British National Party. One conservative group calling itself the “Digg Patriots” reportedly can bury more than 90 percent of the articles submitted by targeted users and websites within three hours of their submission.
On the surface, the danger of the Internet lies in the fact that it provides anonymity and distance. It’s easier to yell epithets at someone when he doesn’t know who you are or where to find you, and he can’t shake you warmly by the throat.
The real problem, however, goes much deeper. It’s the lack of a civil code to live by online, much as the social contract governs a large proportion of our behavior in real life. Granted, there will always be the crazies and the obnoxious people in real life, but social etiquette is a strong control. Over and above that, there’s the possibility of recourse to law enforcement. Yell at someone and you get disapproving looks; yell a lot more and they can call the cops.
Perhaps we need some sort of code of behavior on the Internet similar to what we have in real life. The question then is, who will set up and fund the Internet police, if you like, and where will we draw the ranks of the Internet police from?
Whether we can resolve these issues remains unclear. Until we do, however, we have to be on guard against the tyranny of the minority.
TechNewsWorld columnist and reporter Richard Adhikari has been writing about high-tech since the mid-1980s, when he was editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. He was editor of Direct Access (now Computerworld Canada) and InfoCanada. He was senior writer at Planet IT and wrote extensively for Information Week, the IW 500, Software Magazine, Client-Server Computing, and Application Development Trends, among other publications. He wonders where high-tech is going but loves it anyhow.