Did the Internet Get Worse, or Were You Not Paying Attention?

In Response to Angela Watercutter’s Grumpy Cat Article at Wired

Dear Angela:

First, forgive me for taking a bit too seriously your lighthearted article of May 17, in which you identify the passing of Grumpy Cat* as a symbol of a bygone internet that was playful and innocent in 2012, but which has since devolved to a world of harassment, divisiveness, and hate speech.  Because you refer to yourself as a curmudgeon, allow a presumably older and more ornery curmudgeon to mention that while it may seem as though the internet went south circa early 2016, there were many signs of the reckoning to come.  But of course anyone who tried to mention this was called a “luddite.”  

Since it was a meme that inspired your article, I will note, for instance, that while you and your friends were having a smile at pictures of Grumpy Cat et al, some not so friendly folks were sharing a meme of the altered Shepard Fairey Obama picture depicting the President as having been lynched and the word HOPE replaced by ROPE at the bottom of the frame.  So if we fast-forward from that moment to Charlottesville and the general reaction that, “We thought we were done with this kind of racism and hate in this country,” I am moved to ask why?  It was all right there in the newsfeeds and tweet-decks if you chose to look.

Of course, the tech-utopians kept insisting that so long as the internet remains an “open” forum for speech, the good will surely overwhelm the bad.  This fallacy spawned a fetish for the virtues of anonymity and raw data dumps of hacked information with the assumption that these new forms of “empowerment” would strengthen democratic societies.  Except of course that one cannot strengthen institutions and abandon faith in them at the same time, as we are now witnessing on a daily basis. 

Trump’s attacks on the press—a literal threat to the First Amendment—were not his invention, but rather his capitalizing on a trend fostered by millions across the political spectrum who bought into the techno-libertarian idea that expertise like journalism is all just a conspiracy to hide the real truth. Truth was available at a Sub-Reddit of your choosing, and any attempt by its owners to remove or moderate even some very ugly “truths” was portrayed as a threat to the First Amendment.

Speaking of Reddit and ugly truths, 2012 was the year that Gawker exposed the award-winning Redditor Violentacrez as a super-troll who, “issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed.” Remember him?  Michael Brutsch hosted the popular Sub-Reddits Rapebait, Chokeabitch, and the melodious Niggerjailbait.  And I’m not kidding, Reddit really did give him an award.  So, maybe some signs were visible in 2012. 

It was in June of 2012 that internet hero to many, Julian Assange, ducked into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for a few years, his own soon-to-be-grumpy cat in tow, and ensconced himself as the worst house guest ever, in order to avoid extradition to Sweden to face two charges of sexual assault. 

Later that year, the group Anonymous, believing that Wikileaks just wasn’t hacker enough, announced “Mayhem 2012”—a day of mass systems and information hacking as a worldwide protest against what they considered censorship and corporate and government control.  And because they seem to know more about movies and comic books than history, Anonymous pledged to launch its hack-a-thon in honor of Guy Fawkes Day, but as with the misplaced efforts of the real Fawkes, nothing went boom.  

Still the message was clear, and many believed it:  the internet was the antidote to all the lies, secrets, and conspiracies that allegedly served as the nexus of every public and private enterprise operating at every level everywhere.  We the Sheeple were all just one red pill of a mouse click away from “waking up” to what was really going on.  The Obama administration was “draconian,” while an internet Robin Hood like Kim Dotcom, arrested in in New Zealand in 2012, vowed in a Twitter-rant to become “Hillary’s worst nightmare,” by establishing a foothold for his Pirate Party in the United States.  (How did we get here? We were already here.)

2012 was the year that European Pirate Party co-founder Rick Falkvinge recommended legalizing child pornography because, among other things, its prohibition might stifle the introduction of Google Glass.  Thankfully, Google Glass failed to launch due to the sheer mass of its lameness as a product, and we did not have to legalize the abuse and exploitation of children.  And I really think the B-Side of Falkvinge’s hit single was Cody Wilson’s 2012 launch of Defense Distributed, the company that wanted to empower every citizen to 3D print his own firearms because that will really keep the government in check.  

And of course the biggest internet story of 2012 was the January defeat of SOPA/PIPA—a watershed moment in “direct democracy” that simultaneously demonstrated the power of disinformation and let Silicon Valley know that they were free to do whatever the hell they wanted.  Everything you ever needed to know about how we got to this moment, Angela, is written in that campaign.  It had all the elements necessary to tank a perfectly good Republic via social media—outright lies, hyperbolic memes, massive corporate influence, a pavlovian electorate that doesn’t understand the issues, virtual ballot-stuffing, and a lasting effect that continues to misinform long after the event itself has passed. 

Concurrent with the industry-backed campaign against that legislation, 2012 was the year that Google began to climb the lobby ladder from one of the lowest rungs to the top five.  And it was the year the Internet Association was formed to advocate important civil liberties policies like keeping billion-dollar corporations’ liability shields intact for all eternity.  This is the same Internet Association that just announced it will be awarding the Internet Freedom Award to Ivanka (I kid you not) Trump.  Bet you didn’t see that coming in 2012.

The internet may have looked all sparkly to you and your friends seven years ago, but maybe that has something to do with spending a little too much time looking at funny memes and not quite enough time paying attention to several warning signs that ought to have made a lot of people way more grumpy.  

* This post is in no way meant to comment on the “Grumpy Cat” Tardar Sauce, who was a beloved family pet and recently passed.  My condolences. 

Photo by Ulianna19970

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