Is the internet the problem?

By ANI WHITE, doctoral candidate in Media and Communication. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe.


The utopian moment of the internet seems dead. Throughout the 21st century, various negative features of the internet-as-we-know-it have become apparent: surveillance, the commodification of social life, algorithmic bubbles, ‘Fake News’ and conspiracy theories, and the far right’s effective use of the internet for recruitment. Faced with algorithmic capitalism fostering increasingly toxic content, we may be reminded of Professor Farnsworth’s words from Futurama: “Technology isn’t intrinsically good or evil. It’s how it’s used. Like the Death Ray.”

Yet utopian accounts persist, emphasising decentralisation, post-scarcity, new sharing and collaborative practices, and replacement of labour offering the possibility of a post-work society: socialists such as Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek have argued that the internet prefigures ‘post-capitalism’, although the contradictions of ‘platform capitalism’ must be resolved to get there.[1] The purpose of this article is not to advance a purely utopian or dystopian account of the internet, but rather to enquire into the broader social relations the internet reveals.

In this historical moment, the social relations revealed by the internet do appear largely dysfunctional. Yet this may not be determined by the internet. A cross-national psychological study found that while the internet does not necessarily make people more hostile – people who are hostile offline tend to be hostile online – the behaviour of hostile people is more visible online than offline.[2] A similar principle may apply with misinformation and backlash: this is not a problem that originates with the internet, but the internet certainly provides a platform for it. The contemporary backlash against vaccination has precedent: mandatory seatbelts,[3] mandatory helmets (which were ruled by the Illinois Supreme Court as an unconstitutional restriction of personal liberty),[4] and drink-driving laws[5] all received a backlash when introduced. In the early-to-mid 20th century, the far right took advantage of the popular media channels of the time – such as the printing press, posters, and cinema (such as the work of Leni Riefenstahl) – to propagate conspiracy theories and far-right ideology. Contemporary anti-Semitic memes in particular bear remarkable resemblances to this ‘classical’ anti-Semitic propaganda, in large part because memers directly borrow from it.

Yet internet platforms have distinct features that reward certain kinds of content over others. Algorithms often reward negative content. Anti-capitalist gaming commentator Jim Sterling, who has achieved some success with 850K followers on YouTube, notes that they are often criticised for only producing negative content, yet their negative content receives the most engagement. Sterling comparatively cites the viewing and engagement figures of their own videos to demonstrate this, with more positive videos receiving less engagement.[6] Facebook’s algorithms, ranking ‘reaction’ emojis such as the angry face as five times more valuable than ‘likes’, also seem to have factored into the growth of negative content.[7]

Communist theorist Jodi Dean argues that “the net is not a public sphere”, meaning that it does not serve as a space for rational deliberation and debate. Yet Dean does not bemoan that the net falls short as a “public sphere.” Rather, Dean defines the net as a new “zero institution”, an unavoidable bottom line for all contemporary politics, one which favours contestation over consensus, and argues that political activists should engage on these terms of contestation rather than attempt to turn the web into a rational public sphere.[8] It’s worth noting that the “public sphere” has involved exclusions from the start – the French Revolution, idealised by theorists such as Jürgen Habermas as the birth of modern public discourse,[9] excluded everyone but property-owning European men. Therefore, contention has always been necessary to expand public discourse.[10] Media and Communications theorists Kavada and Poell have recently argued that rather than deliberative national public spheres, the context for contemporary social movements is one of transnational “contentious publicness.”[11]

Yet contentious publicness is often weaponised by the right, particularly the far right. As outlined in Gavan Titley’s essential Is Free Speech Racist?, the far right has proven adept at casting reactionary views as a ‘free speech’ issue, by provoking ritualistic clashes over the ‘right to offend’ that give legitimacy to long-discredited ideas such as race-science.[12] In general, the far right has proven very adept at using the affordances of the internet to propagate its ideology. If nothing else this is demonstrated by the widespread adoption of far-right talking points, such as ‘free speech’ for racists, across the political spectrum: even many professed leftists buy into this framing.

So, in this toxic ideological environment, are we now reduced to pro-government fact-checkers? Fact-checking may be necessary to a point, but it relies on a common agreement about what sources are authoritative, among other related issues. Fact-checking can even be counterproductive, as seen with the backfire effect, where people presented with facts that contradict their views not only reject these facts, but may even defensively strengthen their existing beliefs. For example, a study examining parents’ intent to vaccinate their children found that when presented with facts that contradicted their views, anti-vax parents sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism.[13]

As an anecdotal example, I recently circulated a study highlighting that over 4 times as many people are offended by ‘Happy Holidays’ (13%) than ‘Merry Xmas’ (3%).[14] Posting this in two separate places prompted two independent response rants about snowflakes offended by ‘Merry Xmas’, the ideological schema apparently preventing any logical engagement with the facts of the article. This is not simply a matter of irrationality, rather all of us have background schemas that can lead us to confirmation bias, seeking out facts (and ‘facts’) that confirm our schemas while ignoring or denying facts that contradict them. This ideological schema also shapes our views on questions like what kind of sources are reliable, meaning that citing ‘reliable sources’ does not necessarily work.

Not all schemas are equally valid. The very visible online denialism regarding COVID has revealed the prevalence of background schemas such as xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and consumer entitlement (as shown by harassment of service workers). In an article on “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality”, Antithesi / cognord note the narcissistic individualist ideological schema revealed in denialist reactions to the pandemic:

Contagious diseases differ from other diseases in a very substantial way: they are by definition social. They presuppose contact, co-existence, a community – even an alienated one. What the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shown us, however, is that we are in a historical period where social relations are perceived as the burdensome void between solid, closed-up and inviolable individuals. Individualities that are self-determined, non-negotiable, non-contagious. At this point, it makes little difference whether this predicament gets interpreted as signifying the prevalence of a narcissistic character or that of a (neo)liberal imaginary that mystifies the social character of capitalist relations and the subjects who reproduce them…

Instead of a social movement that would fight as much against a management geared to minimise disruption of economic output, as well as for universal and unconditional access to existing protective options (from vaccines to renumerated withdrawal from work) and expanded health care, we have the development of tendencies that demand, in the name of “freedom” and self-determination, the right to pretend that Sars-CoV-2 does not exist.[15]

Although we are forced into a defensive rather than proactive position, the apparently contradictory stance of Aotearoa/New Zealand leftists who’ve previously been critical of the Ardern government now defending key policies stems from a broader pro-public health schema. We support vaccination not because the Ardern government is doing it, but because of the historical record of vaccination as a public health measure (and call governments, including the Ardern government to account where their public health response is inadequate).

Conversely, being right is not enough. We must keep in mind Marx’s reminder that “it is essential to educate the educator”;[16] none of us arrived fully formed socialists, and all of us have something to learn. We need to construct educational spaces beyond the academy that can challenge preconceptions, facilitate informed debate, and work towards shared understanding. It may be possible to create such spaces online with careful moderation, but it’s clear that corporate ‘social media’ platforms are not generally geared towards productive discourse, so we need our own educational infrastructure both online and beyond.

Yet to a point, we can appropriate mainstream platforms for our own purposes. This was made apparent by the social movements of 2011, and more recently by the Black Lives Matter movement, with a central slogan that was popularised via hashtag. Just as neo-reactionary movements are not created by the internet but promoted through it, many have highlighted that the 2011 movements could not accurately be described as ‘Twitter Revolutions’ or ‘Facebook Revolutions’, as they were neither determined nor even primarily organised through social media. Yet they demonstrated that progressive movements can use mainstream platforms effectively. The logic of these platforms tends more toward promotion rather than education, so keeping this in mind, we can use them to supplement other forms of communication and organisation. The internet, including mainstream platforms is necessary but insufficient for any contemporary communication strategy.

We need our own independent projects that transcend corporate social media platforms. Promotion through mainstream platforms must be complemented by the development of independent online platforms, independent media more generally, and ‘traditional’ forms of organising such as doorknocking, strikes, and mass mobilisation. This is more difficult in a pandemic environment, which has tended to force communication and organisation online, an acceleration of an existing trend that has both pros (such as the reduced barrier of geography) and cons (such as the reduced capacity to take direct action). Yet it’s also possible to mobilise relatively safely in ‘meatspace’, as demonstrated by mass Black Lives Matter rallies which implemented health measures such as masking – there is no evidence that these protests led to increased spread of COVID-19.[17]

The internet is no more the problem than previous media forms such as mass printing, cinema, or television was the problem – and you could certainly find many arguing that they were (such as Guy Debord in “Society of the Spectacle”[18]). Yet leftists were able to utilise media forms such as mass printing: this was the main infrastructure for mediated political communication, as the internet is now. The internet also has affordances that these prior forms did not, such as the greater ease of circulation across the political spectrum. More than purely utopian or dystopian accounts of the internet, we need to identify how social contradictions play out through and beyond digital platforms, and to develop strategies with an awareness of both these platforms’ advantages and limitations. As the post-capitalists argue,[19] we can also seek to construct a different kind of internet, driven not by the self-serving imperatives of Silicon Valley but by sharing and collaborative practices for social ends.

[1] Mason, Paul. PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Allen Lane. 2015; Srnicek, Nick. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Verso. 2015

[2] Bor, Alexander; Petersen, Michael Bang. “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis.” American Political Science Review, First View , pp. 1 – 18.

[3] Ackerman, Daniel. “Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts.” 27 May 2020, Business Insider Australia ( Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[4] Jones, Marian Moser; Bayer, Ronald. “Paternalism & Its Discontents: Motorcycle Helmet Laws, Libertarian Values, and Public Health.” Am J Public Health. 2007 February; 97(2): 208–217.

[5] Lerner, Barron H. “How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving.” What It Means To Be American (Smithsonian and Arizona State University), 17 January 2019 ( Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[6] Sterling, Jim. “Mister Negative (The Jimquisition). 31 March 2020, YouTube ( Web. Accessed 21/12/2021

[7] Merrill, Jeremy B; Oremus, Will. “Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’: How Facebook’s formula fostered rage and misinformation.” 26 October 2021, The Washington Post ( Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[8] Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere.” Constellations 10(1):95 – pp112 · April 2003

[9] Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An enquiry into a category of bourgeois society, translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. MIT Press. 1962.

[10] Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990). JStor ( Web. Accessed 12/03/2018.

[11] Kavada, Anastasia; Poell, Thomas. “From Counterpublics to Contentious Publicness: Tracing the Temporal, Spatial and Material Articulations of Popular Protest Through Social Media.” Communication Theory 00, 2020: pp1-19, published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association.

[12] Titley, Gavan. Is Free Speech Racist? Polity Press. 2020

[13] Brendan Nyhan et al, Effective Messages in Vaccine Prevention: A Randomized Trial, Pediatrics Journal, April 2014:

[14] Ingraham, Christopher. “Poll: Conservatives most likely to be offended by holiday greetings.” 20 December 2021, The Washington Post ( Web. Accessed 20/02/2017

[15] Antithesi/Cognord, “The Reality of Denial and the Denial of Reality.” 9 December 2021, A Contrary Little Quail ( Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[16] Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Originally written 1845; originally published as an appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888; translated by W. Lough for Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 published by Moscow: Progress Publishers 1969; transcribed for by Zodiac/Brian Baggins, 1995/1999/2002 ( ).

[17] Berger, Matt. “Why the Black Lives Matter Protests Didn’t Contribute to the COVID-19 Surge.” 8 July 2020, Healthline ( Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[18] Debord, Guy. “Society of the Spectacle.”, written 1967; Translation by Black and Red 1977; Transcription/HTML markup by Greg Adargo ( Web. Accessed 12/21/2021

[19] Mason, ibid; Srnicek, ibid.

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