The Perceived Neutrality of the Internet

I met my now husband almost six years ago. I think I might be a bit too young to use the phrase “back then” without sounding like a total idiot, but given the lack of a better phrase, back then, in 2007, I didn’t yet have a Facebook account. I had this thing called Myspace though, but I think that is now totally passé – unless you’re a band, which I am not.

Back then, I definitely used the internet on daily basis, but I also watched news on TV and had a subscription to a few major newspapers in my native country, Finland, where I lived at that time. I would watch the national public TV channel in the mornings to get the gist of what was going on, and the 10pm news in the evening to see what had changed since 8am. I would definitely read about news and world events online too, from various different sources, but it really wasn’t my primary source of news information at that time – and this was only six years ago. I liked my morning coffee with my paper, which was impossible to read in any sensible manner because of the layout and huge size of the thing, but it was still a lovely way to start the morning.

Now, Twitter is my news source. To avoid having to check the front pages of NY Times, CNN, BBC, NBC, NPR, and Al Jazeera, to name a few, as well as local papers from Finland such as Helsingin Sanomat, I log into my trusty Twitter account, which in a matter of seconds will let me know who has the most interesting articles to offer. Sometimes Twitter is so good it actually gives me all the information I need in 140 characters or less, and I won’t even have to click on the link to the actual article! I cannot remember when I have read a full physical newspaper, from first page to last, without skipping any articles. That is how I used to read my paper in the mornings, going through every article in peace, with time and attention – back then.

We often boast how wonderful the internet is – after all, it gives us access to ALL the information in the world, at ANY time, and has EVERYTHING we need to know. It is the same for all users, equal playing ground, objective, neutral, transparent.

Except that it is not.

Yes, we can access almost any information we want to, at any time, for anything we need. The problem is, we choose not to. The internet and its services, apps and tools are getting smarter and smarter – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and websites of news media like HuffPost, NYTimes and CNN, know their users. They know Me. When I open a page, it says “Hi Emma!”, “Welcome back, Emma!”, “We missed you, Emma!”, or “I know you feel guilty about that muffin you had at 11pm last night, Emma, but that’s okay – here’s an article about women embracing their feminine body figure, and another one about the most effective 15-minute ab exercise, just in case.” These sites Know me. They know not only my name, but my interests, my values, my political affiliation, my horoscope, my shopping habits, my annoyances, my pet peeves, my passions, my bra size. They know how I think and what I believe in, and their primary job is to keep me happy and coming back and therefore, to enforce my interests, passions, values and opinions even more. It is as if they are telling me: “Look Emma! This person also thinks Romney is a lying, misogynist, patriarchy-supporting idiot – you’re not alone, ergo, you’re not wrong! Keep thinking the way you’re thinking, and we’ll keep showing you why what you think is right.” And so the story goes – I stay as a gung-ho liberal feminist, who also enjoys baby animal videos, buys things from ModCloth way too often, and, according to the internet, should apparently be having babies soon – at least based on the amount of baby-related-advertisements and suggestions I keep getting from everywhere. My internet knows me – but is that really a good thing?

It’s not. It is not, because it makes us blind to the fact that almost nothing we receive these days from the internet is something we actually, honestly chose to look at or read. It is suggested to us, provided for us, chewed for us into an easily digestible form that we can swallow without any arguments. Twitter doesn’t recommend FoxNews or Romney’s Press Secretary as something or someone I should follow. HuffPost doesn’t suggest articles about the virtues of capitalism and/or patriarchy, or about intelligently argued pro-life opinions. My Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up from liberal, left-wing, pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-capitalist, Obama-supporting news, opinions, status updates, pictures, memes, jokes, videos, quotes – because I am a liberal, left-wing, pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-capitalist, Obama-supporter. However, this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t listen to, read about and look for differing opinions, thoughts, arguments and ideas – I should. But usually, I don’t. Most of us don’t, because we think we don’t have to – after all, the internet is right there, objective and neutral, and it tells us all we need to know to form our opinion about life and love and wars and shoes and Wallstreet and the Occupy Movement and Romney and Obama and carbs and drones and all the rest of the important and not-so-important every-day stuff. We forget that there really is no such thing as a neutral source anymore – or at least we really really have to go digging, if we want to find one. It is also easy to forget that talking with people who think like you, reading news from sources who support your values, political beliefs and interests, and watching TV channels that spew out the exact same propaganda you spew out in your Facebook profile and Twitter profile, doesn’t really get us to challenge our views and thoughts, and it doesn’t really teach us anything new. We all stick to our guns and defend our ground ’til the last breath, but at the same time many of us forget that sometimes, it is actually a good idea to step down from the battle hill of values, beliefs, norms and opinions we are so eagerly defending, and let the other side speak for a moment too – and, more importantly, to listen to them. The Internet will not provide a speaking ground for pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-Romney, pro-capitalist news sources, individuals, TV shows, podcasts, Twitter feeds or internet memes to reach me. I have to go looking for them. Back then, my newspaper and the national, public news channel I used to watch did it for me – I got a dose of more or less everything, and then, based on that information, formed my opinion and looked for more information and details as needed. Those days are long gone.

Anyone who reads my blog, is connected with me on Facebook or Twitter, or knows my poor husband who has to deal with my outbursts, knows that I am 100% liberal (socialist, some say!), democrat, as-left-wing-as-they-come, proudly feminist, totally pro-choice, fully anti-death penalty, Romney/Ryan-hating, human rights activist-y woman. I highly doubt this will ever change. However, I have made a pledge to myself to make a conscious effort to every day read, watch or listen to some story, opinion, news article, blog, podcast, video or comment that is different from my personal opinions and views. I will have to go looking for these, because I do really want to try to find the ones that are not.. well, on the level of “my pigs can carry dead fetuses to full term so I don’t get why women can’t too” – because, let’s face it, there are plenty of crazies out there and listening to them won’ result in anything except uncontrollable anger and total loss of faith in humanity.

The purpose of this is not to change my mind about these things, because I most likely won’t. The purpose is to try to manually maintain some minimum level of neutrality of the news and information I receive daily. I am a passionate proponent of tolerance – I believe we don’t all have to unterstand each other in everything we do, but that we should learn how to tolerate each other a little better despite the fact we don’t always undersand each other. I also believe tolerance has to start with listening to those who you disagree with. I preach a lot about tolerance and listening and seeing things from other people’s perspectives – Well, time to see how that works in practice. The internet can be a neutral news source – but only if we ourselves purposely make it into one. Otherwise, it is simply a reflection of who you already are, and while that might be something really wonderful and pretty to look at, sometimes, just sometimes, it might be a good idea to look at something else, too.

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