New Pew Report: Yeah, the Internet Is Getting Worse

March 29, 2017

4:30 pm

When the opening to a Pew report notes that “2016 was the first year that an internet meme made its way into the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols,” you know it’ll be good.

The Pew Research Center’s new survey, out today, offers an overview of the sad state of the internet in 2016, covering items like the Time magazine cover story on “why we’re losing the internet to the culture of hate” or a constant government battle to balance free speech with misleading information. But it also offers a look at where the internet is likely headed in 2017. It’s not great.

The Stats

Pew posed a question: 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?

The responses were fairly negative:

“In response to this question, 42 percent of respondents indicated that they expect “no major change” in online social climate in the coming decade and 39 percent said they expect the online future will be “more shaped” by negative activities. Those who said they expect the internet to be “less shaped” by harassment, trolling and distrust were in the minority. Some 19 percent said this. “

When asked to elaborate, respondents broke down the issue into four main predictions on the causes of this expected negative pattern.

The Four Main Concerns

First, some believe the negative trend is inherent to the internet, and an unavoidable human response:

“Things will stay bad because to troll is human; anonymity abets anti-social behavior; inequities drive at least some of the inflammatory dialogue; and the growing scale and complexity of internet discourse makes this difficult to defeat.”

Second, others see the main problem to be economic and political.

In summary, “Things will stay bad because tangible and intangible economic and political incentives support trolling. Participation = power and profits.”

Third, the more optimistic group thinks that a response to the internet’s problems is on the way, thanks to AI:

“Things will get better because technical and human solutions will arise as the online world splinters into segmented, controlled social zones with the help of artificial intelligence (AI)”

Fourth and finally, some believe that a stronger regulation will only push free speech farther away, resulting in an even greater negative trend:

“Oversight and community moderation come with a cost. Some solutions could further change the nature of the internet because surveillance will rise; the state may regulate debate; and these changes will polarize people and limit access to information and free speech.”

Every theme listed above is broken down in the report into more specific subthemes, which experts weigh in on. Check out the entire report for far more detail.

The bottom line? Any “networked communication technologies” will empower people. But that empowerment can be bad just as much as it can be good, and the current trend is towards the former.

Read more about internet research at Tech.Co.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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