It is a global phenomenon, and we have yet to fully grasp its implications for democracy and the functionality of Western states. The Internet is a bottomless well of information and a vast forum where different ideas are endlessly being exchanged. The anarchic nature of cyberspace is one of its biggest attractions and, many people hold, it expands the limits of our democracy because it gives a say to every individual.
The problem of course lies with the thoughtless, no-filter reproduction of misguided, extreme stories that influence the beliefs and the attitudes of large numbers of people. Some dodgy website in America’s South posts a story about US President Barack Obama being a devout Muslim and the Internet goes wild.
Despite the efforts of the White House communications team who are working 24/7 to contain the impact of such reports before they spin out of control, the “story” has already reached the screens of millions of people who are ready to believe anything they read on the World Wide Web.
Sure, filthy politics were around long before the arrival of the Internet. An example in point: Former President Richard Nixon liked to intimidate American voters, saying that if they voted for Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy they would effectively be voting to be ruled by the pope.
Nixon, of course, was able to spread this absurd conspiracy theory without the power of the Internet. However, the great power of the Web lies with the unprecedented speed of information distribution and the high degree of infiltration. There are millions of people out there who live in the world of the Internet; they more or less believe everything that they read online and treat every other form of information with skepticism.
Mainstream politicians everywhere have mostly lost contact with these people, and so have the traditional media, such as newspapers and television. Conspiracy theories, fabricated gossip and recycled “reports” are taking root in the collective subconscious and constitute fertile ground for movements such as the Tea Party in the United States and in all sorts of uber-populist groupings elsewhere.
All that poses a very big problem and, perhaps, one that cannot be solved.
Sure, we should not forget what the Internet has offered to billions of people around the globe, especially to those who would never have had the opportunity to educate, inform, or express themselves. It is still early to assess its impact on the history of the human race.