How did people organise protests before the internet? How did riots happen? How did terrorists carry out attacks? All these things definitely happened. I remember them distinctly. In the days before the world wide web, all sorts of things occurred without anyone “taking to social media” or “using sophisticated communications technology” (phones).
But current discussions are premised on the idea that the web in itself has created civil disorder and even terrorism.
In Ireland, as protests have got to the point where government ministers can barely leave the house without being confronted by citizens unhappy with proposed household water metering, commentator Chris Johns suggested that “Social media has brought more illness to Ireland than Ebola has. Anarchists, extremists and all-round loonies can find a voice and organisational structure – if only for a decent riot – amidst a political fragmentation that rewards those who shout the loudest.”
Considering there have been no recorded incidents of Ebola in Ireland, the first part of this assertion could be technically true; or we could say that social media has brought the same amount of illness to Ireland — none. As for the anarchists and loonies, well, they have always been with us, and had some success in organising before Facebook came along.
Across the Atlantic, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said that “nonstop rumours on social media” had significantly hampered the investigation into the killing of Michael Brown, and contributed to his decision not to prosecute. This in the land of the First Amendment, where the justice system long ago learned to deal with hearsay.
Back over the ocean again, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale pointed to a Facebook message sent by Adebowale, in which he expressed a desire to kill a soldier. In spite of several failures by the intelligence services, who were long aware of Adebowale’s tendencies, Facebook faced criticism for not “flagging up” the message to the security forces. Social media to blame once again.
Why do we do this? Why must every single occurrence now have a social media angle?
Partly because everything many of us do now does have an internet angle. The web is simply part of human interaction for millions.
But for some it seems foreign. My generation is the last that will remember life before the internet.
For all that, it is still shockingly new. I’m not just saying that to make myself feel younger. Some people my age and older (“digital immigrants”, apparently, which makes me a double immigrant) have adapted reasonably well to our new environment. Some really haven’t. I have watched a QC attempt to explain the difference between a reply and a direct message on Twitter. It was as you’d expect, equal parts cute and infuriating, but it did also make one think how insanely fast we have adapted to certain technologies, and how some people are left behind.
When was the last time they changed Facebook? I honestly couldn’t say. But remember when complaining about changes to Facebook was a thing? We used to object; now we install our own mental updates and carry on, using new features and forgetting what went before. I have literally no idea what Facebook looked like when I joined it. Or Twitter for that matter.
And I, remember, am an immigrant, not a native. There are still a lot of people who don’t want to emigrate to the web, because they think it’s full of conspiracy theories and pornography. And there are some who occasionally “log on” to the internet, and then “log off” again, like an overnight work trip to Leicester.
So when something happens that involves an email, a tweet, a Facebook update or whatever, for some that is still of interest in itself.
Will this ever end? Hopefully. As time goes on, the distinction between the internet and THE INTERNET will become clearer. THE INTERNET is a culture; the place where the likes of Doge and Grumpycat come from, and all their predecessors (I still have a soft spot for Mahir “I Kiss You” Çağrı. Look it up, youngsters). The internet is simply a communications tool, like millions upon millions of tin cans joined with taut string. When we can get this a little clearer in our heads, then finding a web angle for every occasion will feel a bit silly, like blaming Bic for poison pen letters.
That is not to say that we should take the web for granted, or become blase about its use and abuse. But we must treat it as simply a part of the environment. Essentially, we have to stop thinking about things happening “on the internet”. There is no “internet freedom” — there is just freedom. There is no “internet privacy” — there is privacy. There are no “internet bullies” — there are bullies.
Put simply, we need to ban the word “internet”.