When it comes to internet trolls, online harassment and fake news, there’s not a lot of light at the end of the online tunnel. And things are probably going to get darker.
Researchers at the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked 1,537 scholars and technologists what they think the future of the Internet – in terms of how long people will continue to treat each other like garbage – holds. An overwhelming 81 percent said the trolls are winning.
Specifically, the survey asked: “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?”
Forty-two percent of respondents think the internet will stay about the same over the next 10 years, while 39 percent said they expect discourse to get even more hostile. Only 19 percent predicted any sort of decline in abuse and harassment. Pew stated that the interviews were conducted between July 1 and August 12 – well before the term “fake news” started making daily headlines.
“People are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect,” Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google, said. “This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it.”
Respondents could submit comments with their answers, and the report is chock full (literally hundreds) of remarks from professors, engineers and tech leaders.
Experts blamed the rotting internet culture to every imaginable factor: the rise of click-bait, bot accounts, unregulated comment sections, social media platforms serving as anonymous public squares, the hesitation of anyone who avoids condemning vitriolic posts for fear of stepping on free speech or violating first amendment rights — and even someone merely having a bad day.
The steady decline of the public’s trust in media is another not-helpful factor. People have, historically, adopted their barometer for civil discourse from news organizations – which, with social media and the cable news format, just isn’t the case anymore.
“Things will stay bad because to troll is human,” the report states. Basically humanity’s always been awful, but now its in the plainest sight.
But setting up system to simply punish the bad actors isn’t necessarily the solution, and could result in a sort of “Potemkin internet.” The term Potemkin comes from Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader in the 18th century who fell in love with Catherine the Great and built fake villages along one of her routes to make it look like everything was going great. A “Potemkin village” is built to fool others into thinking a situation is way better than it is.
“The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor,” Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst, told Pew. “Of course, this is already happening, just out of sight of most of us.”
Tor is free, downloadable software that lets you anonymously browse the web. It’s pretty popular among trolls, terrorists and people who want to get into the dark web or evade government surveillance.
But these tools aren’t always employed for dark purposes.
“Privacy and anonymity are double-edged swords online because they can be very useful to people who are voicing their opinions under authoritarian regimes,” Norah Abokhodair, an information privacy researcher at the University of Washington, wrote in the report. “However the same technique could be used by the wrong people and help them hide their terrible actions.”
Glass-half-full respondents did offer a glimmer of hope. Most of the experts on the side of “it’s going to get better” placed their bets on technology’s ability to advance and serve society. One anonymous security engineer wrote that “as the tools to prevent harassment improve, the harassers will be robbed of their voices.”
But for now, we have a long way to go.
“Accountability and consequences for bad action are difficult to impose or toothless when they do,” Baratunde Thurston, a fellow at MIT Media Lab who’s also worked The Onion and Fast Company, wrote. “To quote everyone ever, things will get worse before they get better.