Fake News, The Dresden Dolls, And Faith In The Human Spirit

April 6, 2017

You follow the news, and read the think-pieces, and have your opinions about whether social media and Web 2.0 (remember that phrase?) are the saviors or destroyers of civilization or both. But you haven’t even started to really think about the impact of — and potential solutions for — trolls and bullshit and fake news and every other sort of online unpleasantness until you read this.

The Pew Research Center published the report, titled “The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online,” last week, and it stopped me in my tracks. It cost me sleep. Not because it was so unsettling — though it had its moments — but because it was so fascinating. The report is the product a a “large-scale canvassing” that yielded more than 1,500 responses (!) from futurists and Harvard professors and journalists and people actually invented the connected world we know.

It’s stupid to extract a couple of quotes from such a substantial work, but as an example, Vint Cerf, now a Google exec and the co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, wrote:

“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 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.”

Don’t worry. There’s some “faith in the human spirit” stuff in there, too, but it’s hardly a rosy picture. I’m going to stop writing about it so you can just go read it.

The morning after I finished reading this beast of a report from Pew, I stumbled across an old TED Talk I had seen a few times prior. Amanda Palmer of the band The Dresden Dolls delivers a beautiful, inspiring reaffirmation of everything that’s so absent in the world Pew’s respondents inhabit. Palmer describes her journey from working as a living statue (“The 8-Foot Bride“!) collecting spare change on the streets to being a successful musician — and all of the magic that happened along the way, after she learned to stop letting the assholes get her down and to have faith in the power of the people around you.

I’m going to stop writing about it so you can go watch it.

I’ll leave you with these parting thoughts:

One, personally: Don’t be the guy in the car. Focus your energy on creating something meaningful instead of hurling insults at something you just don’t understand. Two, professionally: Don’t fear the guy in the car. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Just be the best you can be for the people who need and want you.

And don’t lose your faith in the power of the people around you.