HAYES IN THE HOUSE: By MP John Hayes
Microsoft’s Bill Gates once said “the internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.”
In its early days many shared this benevolent vision of the web. They imagined an information centre where people from all over the world would come together to share ideas and opinions. Senior figures from Google and Facebook made similar grandiose statements, about how their websites would connect the world and change lives, which look more hollow now.
In recent years the reality of the internet’s malevolent impact on public discourse has become clear. Rather than realising Bill Gates’ dream of good citizens gathering to exchange ideas, people increasingly seek out news online that merely reinforces their prejudices. Instead of invariably broadening minds the web often narrows them.
Elementary web-led politics is accessible because it is simple to the point of crassness, leaving some convinced that their opponents are not merely wrong but wicked. Political affairs in Westminster are conducted very differently – for the most part through careful Parliamentary consideration and compromise between people of differing views, typically respecting their adversaries. The effect of crass, elementary politics – as recently manifest in the United States of America – is to weaken democratic governance.
Whereas traditional media, like newspapers and radio, abides by a code of ethics, no such obligations exist online. Most disturbing is the rise of so-called ‘fake news’, stories which are intentionally false and misleading. With more people, especially the young, relying on social media for their news it is more important than ever that these sites are held to account for the content they permit.
Even more alarming is the prevalence of vile online abuse. That some websites are apparently unwilling to take down offensive material is deeply worrying, and still worse are the threats to public figures and private citizens alike. The internet affords a certain anonymity to cowards and bullies who spread vile and hateful messages – malice about which more should be done.
The nature of the net is often as shallow as it is vast. Many things cannot be reduced to a Facebook post or a Tweet comprising just 140 characters. Arguments must be constructed and articulated with sufficient care to reflect their inherent complexities. The brevity of Twitter precludes exploration of intricate ideas and the analysis of detailed policy.
While information is now often available at a click of a mouse, access to data neither necessarily means we know how to use it, nor ensures measured reflection. TS Elliot’s questions are more pertinent than ever – “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
My wise father taught me that the best we can hope for through life is to treat people kindly, consider things carefully, learn a little, and make a handful of true, trusted friends. None of which he learned online.