Why Does Everything Bad Seem to Involve the Internet?

Everything bad involves the internet, because everything—good, bad or indifferent—involves the internet, and people want excuses for their failures.

The internet is nearly the perfect modern day bogey man. Humans seem congenitally predisposed to justify undesirable outcomes by turning to external explanations. If there is something, anything, that available that could be the “root cause” of all our ills, someone will attempt to assign blame to that something, no matter how preposterous. As recently as the mid-19th century, Americans were blaming tuberculosis on vampires. One might reasonably hope the modern era would end superstitious and spurious explanations of unfortunate events, but was not to be.

The internet is a better scapegoat than any Beelzebub, Samael or Caocao to blame for the world’s evils. Because the internet is everywhere, it is always near by whenever tragedy befalls someone. No matter how insane, tragic or random, someone related to some problem will have been online shortly before any given misfortune. Most people do not understand the internet’s technology itself enough to realize the internet’s limitations, allowing imagination to run wild. The internet is amazingly powerful, in some circumstances, making even remarkable claims plausible on their face.

Blaming the internet for our problems exculpates us for our own failures. If the internet is the cause of the problem, then we are innocent victims, not complicit co-conspirators. No matter how tendentious causal claims blaming the internet for personal, social and political woes reveal themselves to be after careful consideration, the strong personal and social incentive to blame someone other than yourself never decreases.

Strangely, our collective need to assign blame to something seems to have risen precisely at the same time as life has improved around the world. It is as if things are so good, relative to the past, the few remaining bad outcomes demand explanation. Misfortune, disorder and strife stand out far more in the modern, safe and stable world than they would have in the comparative chaos of nearly every past epoch. Modern prosperity makes dysfunction more incomprehensible just as a single dandelion is far more distracting on a perfectly manicured fairway than it would be in your average suburban yard.

Personal incentive to blame the internet is especially high when personal tragedy is involved, but the incentives are just as strong for political and social leaders to blame the internet. If your son abandons his home to join jihad, or become a suicide bomber, is is doubtless more personally acceptable to believe he was corrupted by unknown videos online than to believe you may have failed as a parent. When a member of your social group joins a white supremacist group, then murders innocent people, it is easier to believe that he was just corrupted by really bad people online, rather than accept there might be a problem with racism in your community.

Local leaders have the same incentives to deny their own responsibility as family, friends and social groups, but once the issue arrives on the national stage, incentives become stronger and more perverse. If terrorists are born at home, and in their social circles, there’s very little for the FBI to do, but if online communities create terrorists, terrorism becomes a convenient excuse to broaden national power. If the internet helps elect a bad candidate, or instate an undesirable policy, then our preferred candidate did not fail, and our preferred policy may still be the most popular in society. If our social ills are not the result of breakdown in social cohesion, but because it is too easy to be mean online, then I do not have to worry about treating people better, because the real solution is a better app.

The internet will remain a popular, viable bogeyman for societies’ ills as long as we do not understand the internet’s effects on society. While doubtless some people still believe vampires cause tuberculosis, vampire panics are not a feature of modern life because scientists adequately understand what causes tuberculosis. Similarly, only by adequately explaining how the internet has changed the world we live in can we reduce popular vilification of the internet.

Some scholars might reasonably argue that we do understand most social phenomena and the internet has not changed those phenomena materially, but this “neo-luddism” will never satisfy demand for explanations. First, the internet has been manifestly important to many developments in the modern world, and arguing the contrary is foolish. Second, while there may be many causes to changes we observe, it is just as important to understand what the internet does not cause as to know what it does cause, to know the technology’s limitations. Finally, even if our basic understanding of socio-political life remains unchanged, most important socio-political phenomena include elements defined by non-basic characteristics. Modern banking did not change the nature of economics, but the character of business conducted with fiat currency and wire transfers differs wildly from that conducted with specie.

Perhaps nothing will convince humans to abandon the belief in a bogeyman as a psychological device, but putting the internet in that role is bad for our society. Blaming the internet for causing problems it merely revealed, or coincidentally developed alongside delay’s our better comprehension and improved policy. Failing to understand when the internet is responsible for observed changes can be just as deleterious. In both cases, poor comprehension of our world creates space for the unwise or the unscrupulous to work their wicked ways into political life. Better understanding the internet may not guarantee good governance, but it makes accidental malpractice less likely an deliberate charlatanry more difficult. Whatever personal or social pain we may encounter by abandoning the collective pretense humanity is the innocent victims of technology will surely be offset by our improved collective ability to address real problems when they arise.