Chances are this sentence you’re reading right now is printed on a piece of paper. Maybe it’s a quirk of Maui, or just an accident of history, but even in our so-called “Digital Age,” most of MauiTime’s readers still pick up our print edition each week. Of course we publish online, and distribute our stories and other content through social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but for now at least, most of our readers still prefer reading an old-fashioned newspaper.
How long this will continue is anyone’s guess. More people are going online every day, and the most recent numbers from Internet World Stats say that 51 percent of the global population–about 3.9 billion people–have access to the internet. The percentages in the U.S. are much higher. According to the 2016 edition of the Hawaii Data Book, a little less than 82 percent of the population has some sort of internet access. It’s higher still here in Hawaii, where nearly 86 percent of the population has internet access.
Nonetheless, the County of Maui wants to make it even easier for people here to get online. On Dec. 5, county officials said they were sending out a Request for Information (RFI) to find out how feasible it is to establish public internet access at various facilities throughout Maui County.
“The County of Maui desires to provide its citizens with access to the internet at various public facilities throughout the County,” states the county’s RFI. “Internet access serves as a critical connection between citizens, their community, and the world. Providing citizens with access to the internet at various public facilities will further help enhance our quality of life and reinforce the county’s commitment to a connected community.”
The County’s plan is to start by providing free wifi (as well as “premium” access for a fee) at places like the Lahaina Civic Center, War Memorial and the South Maui Gymnasium, which is still under construction. Assuming that works (it’s scheduled to start in March 2018), similar access would go up at the county’s various community centers.
County Managing Director Keith Regan says this will be great for everyone.
“The internet has become a necessity and is no longer a luxury of life,” Regan said in a Dec. 5 County news release. “It’s how we communicate, share our thoughts, interact with one another and have become an integral part of our collective lives. We’ve all been at a basketball game, a concert, a football game or other events at our public facilities and been challenged with connectivity issues. Our hope is that, through the development of a publicly available internet solution at our facilities, we will be able to provide internet access at no cost for basic usage and nominal cost for higher bandwidth access.”
This is a good thing, right? I mean, anything that makes it easier for people in Maui County to access the internet would be good for MauiTime. But Regan’s quote is rather simplistic–while the internet has certainly changed the world over the last two decades, it’s also done so in complex, sometimes dangerous ways that we’re still struggling to understand.
Yes, the internet gives me unparalleled access to all sorts of information I never had even just a decade ago. It lets me communicate with people in real time halfway around the world, monitor news from dozens of reporters on many more dozens of subjects and watch programs like GLOW and Book of Negroes (as seen on the online video channels Netflix and Hulu, respectively) that would never exist on American network television.
But the internet also flattens distinctions between sources, rewards violent white supremacist extremists with free communication channels and allows for unmatched bullying and threats, especially of women. And I haven’t even gotten to Facebook yet.
Launched in early 2004, Facebook is among the most popular social media sites in the world. In fact, about two billion people use the site every month. And it’s destroying the world.
We have to remember that the users who build and maintain Facebook pages are NOT Facebook’s actual customers. No, those are people who buy ads on Facebook. The rest of us–and all the precious data and photographs we post there–are what’s being sold to those customers.
Facebook works because its computer algorithms can target paid ads to users. This is brilliant in business but dangerous in civil society because it ends up stove-piping information and propaganda with no way (other than community policing) to make sure any of it is actually true.
“Facebook is approaching half-a-trillion dollars in market capitalization because the business model–ad-targeting through deep surveillance, emaciated work force, automation and the use of algorithms to find and highlight content that entice people to stay on the site or click on ads or share pay-for-play messages–works,” University of North Carolina Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a Sept. 23 2017 New York Times op-ed. “The trouble is Facebook’s business model is structurally identical whether advertisers are selling shoes, politics or fake diet pills, and whether they’re going after new moms, dog lovers or neo-Nazis. The algorithms don’t know the difference, and Facebook’s customers are not its users.”
The result is everyone’s Facebook pages fills with garbage–especially political memes of dubious value and stories that are outright false. It turns out that fake news, in the world of Facebook, is insanely profitable. And there are no gatekeepers left to tell users the difference between reality and fantasy.
Think about the grocery store. There, at the checkout counter, are racks for magazines like People, and other racks for rags like The National Enquirer. The two racks are very distinct, and decades of tradition are enough to let customers know that People, while filled with intellectual fluff, is published using modern journalistic techniques, while the stories in publications like the Enquirer are far less likely to be true.
There’s nothing like that on the internet. Sure, Facebook has ways for users to report fake news, but that’s next to useless. Twitter has its blue “verified” check marks, but how valuable are those if actual Nazis get them, too? The result, which we all saw during the 2016 presidential election, is chaos.
“This, combined with deep surveillance-based profiling, enormous scale, automation, lack of sufficient human oversight and a tendency to react to public relations crises instead of making proactive changes helps to explain why, during the 2016 presidential race, the site [Facebook] was swamped with misinformation and outright fraudulent fake news, with actors ranging from foreign troublemakers to make-a-buck hucksters to ideologically motivated political groups,” Tufekci wrote in her Times essay.
And it’s not just Facebook that poses a threat to civil society. Academics and analysts all over have especially bleak views of our shared online future–one plagued by troll attacks, cyberbullying and doxing (making public a person’s home address against his or her will). Here are just three I found in Pew Research Center’s Mar. 29, 2017 report The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online:
Industry analyst with at Altimeter Group
In the next several years we will see an increase in the type and volume of bad behavior online, mostly because there will be a corresponding increase in digital activity… Cyberattacks, doxing, and trolling will continue, while social platforms, security experts, ethicists, and others will wrangle over the best ways to balance security and privacy, freedom of speech, and user protections. A great deal of this will happen in public view. The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor [a tool for browsing the internet anonymously]. Of course, this is already happening, just out of sight of most of us. The worst outcome is that we end up with a kind of Potemkin internet in which everything looks reasonably bright and sunny, which hides a more troubling and less transparent reality.”
Google VP and co-inventor of the Internet Protocol
“The internet is threatened with fragmentation… People feel free to make unsupported claims, assertions, and accusations in online media… As things now stand, people are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect. This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it… It is hard to see where this phenomenon may be heading… Social media bring[s] every bad event to our attention, making us feel as if they all happened in our back yards–leading to an overall sense of unease. The combination of bias-reinforcing enclaves and global access to bad actions seems like a toxic mix. It is not clear whether there is a way to counter-balance their socially harmful effects.
The internet is the natural battleground for whatever breaking point we reach to play out, and it’s also a useful surveillance, control, and propaganda tool for monied people hoping to forestall a redistributive future. The Chinese internet playbook–the 50c army, masses of astroturfers, libel campaigns against ‘enemies of the state,’ paranoid war-on-terror rhetoric–has become the playbook of all states, to some extent… That will create even more inflammatory dialogue, flamewars, polarized debates, etc.
And all this was written before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) signaled its intent to destroy Net Neutrality, which prevents internet providers from speeding up or slowing down web browsing or blocking websites and content altogether.
Look, don’t get me wrong. Like many, many people, I use the internet every day. I rely on it for work, and used it extensively for this story. But browsing the internet–even just social media–requires tremendous critical thinking. Without that, we’re all just blundering around a virtual world full of hate, greed and violent threats–a world that will only get bigger.
“Social media’s affordances, including increased visibility and persistence of content, amplify the volume of negative commentary,” said University of Maryland Assistant Professor Jessica Vitak in the Pew Center report. “As more people get internet access–and especially smartphones, which allow people to connect 24/7–there will be increased opportunities for bad behavior.”
*The chance of this is, of course, infinitesimal, but who actually reads the fine print anymore?
Cover design: Darris Hurst